For a year, Neil Samuels of Naperville met weekly with a felon at a train station.
The man, seeking custody of his son, lived in Chicago. His son was in foster care in Aurora, and the train station was the only place they could meet to discuss what it takes to be a good parent.
He had come to Naperville's Project HELP, and Samuels was the only mentor up to the task.
For those and other efforts, Samuels last month was named the National Exchange Club's Parent Aide of the Year -- the first man to win the award.
"It's just a great fit -- Neil with a single dad," said Vicki Coletta, a fellow Project HELP parent mentor who was recognized in 2014 with the same national award. "He's a very logical, practical person and yet very compassionate, very cheering. He does a good job of encouraging them to be more involved with their kids."
Samuels says men see things differently when it comes to raising children. He got involved as a Project HELP volunteer seven years ago because he knew his voice could be valuable to fathers who need a guide.
"I thought it'd be easier for a dad to talk to a dad about his fathering rather than a mom," said the 62-year-old father of one.
But even more valuable than Samuels' voice as a rare father invested in improving parenting is his knowledge of when not to use it.
When Samuels, an executive coach and consultant, meets with parents such as the felon at the train station, he listens.
He follows, of course, the parenting curriculum Project HELP uses to build strengths among parents and give them choices of how to discipline, support and understand their children. He speaks, of course, of his experiences raising his 21-year-old son, Lex, and of the frustrations of past battles -- especially about studying.
But those who nominated Samuels say his strength comes from his ability not just to hear the concerns of the parents he assists, but truly to listen.
"He's open to learning how somebody else approaches things and how to coach and guide somebody through a tough time," said Peggy McGuire, executive director of Project HELP, who suggested Samuels for the award. "He's open to learning from other people and other cultures without judgment."
With the man at the train station, especially, Samuels succeeded because he didn't prejudge. The man could tell.
"He was a very self-aware person," Samuels said about the young father.
"Neil, they think I'm stupid," Samuels said the man told his mentor, speaking of the authorities who eventually decided to give him custody of his children. "I've done stupid things. I'm not stupid."
Samuels says his volunteering has meaning because he's helped ensure the man's kids know their father. Plus, he's helped other parents learn to set a better example for their children.
He's mentored an intercultural couple with vastly different expectations for the roles of mothers and fathers, a couple who adopted two Russian boys with severe disabilities, and Jearline Gatlin, a Naperville grandmother who was unsure how to handle the hyperactive behavior of her grandson, who has ADHD.
In cases like Gatlin's, when a parent is struggling with a child's behavior, Samuels says his role isn't to tell them all the things they're doing wrong. It's to ask what they've tried, what has worked, what hasn't, why not and what else to try instead.
"My job is not to offer advice," he said. "My job is to give a choice."
It's a collaborative process, focused on the parent's strong suits and the child's future.
"I'm helping them discover or rediscover what's good about themselves as people and as parents," he said. "The whole idea is to raise children to be respectful and productive."
When Samuels worked with Gatlin, Jalen was about 8 years old and prone to misbehaving or even leaving the classroom during school.
"Neil just stayed so calm, collected," said Gatlin, 66. "He talked to me and let me get my frustration out."
Years later, Gatlin said Samuels is the only counselor able to break the ice with Jalen, now 11, and she still appreciates his steady presence and calm conversation.
No matter a man's demeanor, McGuire says Samuels is an example of how a father can give back. He's even a bit of a trendsetter, as Project HELP now is training its second male parent mentor. McGuire says a third has expressed interest in helping out through the nonprofit that's supported by donations from the Exchange Club of Naperville.
"We just don't have enough male mentors and role models," she said. "I just wanted to highlight that this is what a man can give to a fellow man trying to raise his children."