U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary George Sheldon spent more than two hours Thursday listening to several men share their experiences as fathers and sons during a roundtable discussion at UCF’s Marriage & Family Research Institute.

Sheldon visited the institute’s location in south Orlando after speaking at the 15th annual International Fatherhood Conference at the Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Studios.

“Assistant Secretary Sheldon listened to some pretty powerful stories today shared by men who had been incarcerated for years and then reconnected with their families,” said Andrew Daire, who co-founded the institute. “It was hard to fight back the tears.”

Sheldon asked the institute to arrange the meeting between men who had benefited from programs funded through the federal agency. Sheldon, who grew up in Plant City, served as the secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families before heading to Washington, D.C.

Family is important to Sheldon. At the federal level he has championed the cause of early-childhood development among low-income families, worked to expand the use of trauma-informed care and practices in the foster-care system, and pushed for better prescribing and monitoring practices within the foster-care system.

Daire and other community partners that have received federal funding organized the roundtable. Daire said it was important to have these kinds of conversations with officials so they can see the impact good programs can have on families.

Daire leads Project T.O.G.E.T.H.E.R., a healthy-marriage initiative in Florida to receive funding from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Family Assistance.

Project T.O.G.E.T.H.E.R. (click here for video) provides free relationship education that focuses on preventing stress and conflict by teaching strategies for healthy and strong relationships. The project is geared toward low-  to moderate-income individuals and couples with or without children.

The institute is part of the College of Education and Human Performance’s graduate counseling program, which earlier this year was recognized in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Graduate Schools list. The institute offers a variety of free services and resources for couples and singles, including counseling, education workshops and research opportunities.

To learn more about the Marriage & Family Research Institute or Project T.O.G.E.T.H.E.R., visit http://mfri.ucf.edu.