Award-winning journalist, author, and television host Lisa Ling captivated the crowd at the Momentous Institute Changing the Odds conference with stories of ways people around the globe have managed to extend love in the face of fear and trauma.

The theme of Momentous Institute’s 2019 Changing the Odds conference was hidden influences — the ways systemic factors like inequality, addiction, and family disruption can change the dynamics within a household and the future health and emotional prospects for its children. Growing up without a father is certainly one of those influences. In a 2016 episode of her award-winning CNN series, This is Life, journalist, author, and television host Lisa Ling looked at one Virginia town where the majority of children had lost a father to incarceration or death. At a special evening screening for attendees at the Momentous Institute 2019 Changing the Odds conference earlier this month, Ling unpacked some of those stories.

“It was almost like all the men had just disappeared,” Ling told the crowd when describing what it was like to visit the Richmond, Virginia, community at the heart of the episode. She spent time with the families of two men in particular, both of whom had been in and out of prison since their early teens.

“What was striking about her project was that in 2015 and 2016, no one in the mainstream was really talking about ACEs yet,” said ACE Awareness Foundation Clinical Director Ebony Bailey, who attended the film discussion. “But here were these dads talking about how their own adverse experiences had blocked them from being full members of their families or present for their children.”

Lisa Ling with ACE Awareness Foundation Clinical Director Ebony Bailey.

Ling explained that the bright spot for her — and indeed for the entire community —  was a fatherhood initiative program designed to help men like those Ling met to learn parenting skills and cultivate bonds with their children even while in prison. “It was interesting to see these dads navigate what a father should look like, even if you never had one yourself,” Bailey said. “They were learning about their own ACEs, and how those experiences impacted them and their children. The men in the fatherhood program get to see their daughters, touch them, and even dance with them at the father-daughter dance.”

But the segment also showed the long road ahead for the dads and their kids. Ling explained to audience that many of the families still struggled to form bonds. One father, she shared, had been excited to spend one-on-one time with his 4-year-old daughter at the dance. But the reality was that even with brief visits and phone calls, to her, he was still a stranger; the little girl spent much of her time sitting quietly, wiping tears from her eyes, and waiting for her mother to return.

“She doesn’t know me,” he told Ling. To watch “Fatherless Towns” and other episodes of This Is Life with Lisa Ling, visit the CNN website.