Joseph Spencer’s shiny, new plaque reads “making the difference” — not “a” difference, but “the” difference.

Spencer’s two sons were diagnosed with autism at a young age. From then on, it became his mission to learn all he could about the disability and set them up for success. He attended conferences across the country, took them to educational programs and visited restaurants every week to expose them to social situations.

Now, Joshua and Joel are 15 and 12. They’re smart, well-rounded and have a passion for life, Spencer said. He and his wife work on creating a warm, loving environment for them to grow up in and he said it’s made all the difference.

And on Saturday, Spencer, 43, was recognized for his parenting efforts and presented with Roanoke’s Father of the Year award.

“It’s humbling,” Spencer said. “Being a father is something I don’t take lightly.”

Spencer, who works as a Medicaid retirement sales specialist with UnitedHealthcare, was one of five fathers nominated for the award this year.

All five nominations came from the Joint Resident Council, a group of low-income residents who provide support and programming for other low-income people in the community. They run food distributions, youth academic and sports programs, and eye and dental care.

The Father of the Year event started through the Department of Housing and Urban Development six years ago, when there was a growing trend of single mother households in Roanoke. The award became a way to not only encourage fathers to stay involved with their families, but also generate more opportunities for them to spend time with their kids, said Gregory Goodman, a family self-sufficiency coordinator with the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

He said involvement from both parents makes all the difference in the lives of children. It sets them up for success and creates a more productive community.

“There’s a lot of great things going on in the community,” Goodman said. “The city’s strong, it’s resilient. When we have things that go wrong or go bad, we overcome that. And today’s a day for celebrating and saying we’re here, we’re strong and we’re uplifting.”

Spencer said his father spent a lot of time with him as he grew up and was always there to support him. From a young age, he knew he wanted to do the same for his kids and teach them to continue the cycle with their own children.

He said he hopes he can be inspiring to other fathers and be a small part of the bigger change happening with families in the community.

“My children face certain challenges everyday,” he said. “I want them to know that they can do anything they put their heart and mind to. Don’t let anything stop you from being what you want to be, don’t let any challenge, or disability or anything that comes your way stop you.”

Spencer said he has a passion for fatherhood, but he wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without the support of his wife, Kenyatta. He said they work as a team to make sure their boys grow up the best they can.

“That’s my number one job,” Spencer said. “Just being a father to my kids.”

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Alison Graham covers Botetourt and Rockbridge counties and Lexington. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

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