Meet Your Neighbor: Admirals Pointe Resident and DADS Founder Joe Meares
About 10 years ago, life threw Joe Meares a curveball that he never saw coming.
Joe and his wife, Cheri, were content with their three kids when they found out a fourth was on the way. Little Peyton was a wonderful Christmas present, arriving Dec. 26, 1997. This unexpected blessing brought yet another surprise for
the Meares when they discovered their new baby had Down Syndrome.
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The emotionally charged diagnosis would spur many changes for the Meares and eventually lead Joe Meares to found the nationally acclaimed Dads Appreciating Down Syndrome (DADS) support group for fathers.
But it took him a while to get there. Joe’s initial reaction was a different stage of “DADS.” Joe says he became a “Dad Against Downs Syndrome.” It wasn’t that he was against his child, but rather against this uninvited, invasive diagnosis.
“I couldn’t fix it,” Joe said. “Men are fixers, and this was something I had absolutely no control over.”
It wasn’t long before that anger turned to acceptance, and Joe moved into the second stage of DADS, becoming a “Dad Accepting Down Syndrome.”
As he and Cheri began researching local opportunities for Downs kids, they decided to relocate the family from the Eagle Creek area to Admirals Pointe in Geist. They wanted to be in the Lawrence Township school district, which has a well-respected special needs program.
Joe prefers the term “differently abled” to special needs. As Peyton grew, he realized she had many similarities to his other girls and that her differences made her special and unique.
“There was nothing to fix because nothing was broken,” he says. That realization threw him into the third and final stage of DADS: Dads Appreciating Down Syndrome.
Seeking a higher level of involvement, Joe joined Down Syndrome Indiana and wound up on the Outreach Committee. Although the group provided networking and support, it just wasn’t geared for dads.
“No matter what the agenda was, somehow the subject always came down to childbirth,” he says with a laugh. Whenever the dads were involved, they never talked about much more than careers or sports.
“Women can meet in line at the grocery store and immediately get into a deep dialogue; men just don’t do that,” Joe said. He yearned for a meaningful connection with other men who understood life with a child with Down Syndrome.
DADS started in 2002 with just eight guys in a closed-door meeting talking about their special kids. The group has grown to more than 100 locally and has spawned another 22 chapters in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K.
The DADS model works because it centers around men and how they relate to one another. The local chapter meets at Loon Lake Lodge every second Tuesday of the month for a frequently “irreverent” gathering over food and drinks. Speakers focus on areas of interest to dads, such as financial concerns and athletic opportunities.
“The atmosphere adds quite a deal because it’s that north woods cabin feel,” Joe says of Loon Lake Lodge, which has been a huge DADS supporter. The group fills up the restaurant’s largest meeting room, where about 30-40 dads finding much-needed support for their role as dads of differently-abled children.
“When a father says his kid got potty trained (a milestone that is often delayed for Down kids), we all get up and do the potty dance,” Joe says. “This is an environment where people understand it and truly get it.”
DADS has three main components: support, fellowship and action. The “action” usually takes on the form of fundraising. DADS has raised more than $350,000 since its inception, with $20,000 annually going to support Riley Camp High-Lite, which is exclusively for youth, teens and young adults with Down Syndrome.
The largest fundraiser of the year is the annual DADS Kids Golf Outing the first week of June. This year’s event netted $79,000 to support Camp High-Lite, Best Buddies of Central Indiana, the National Downs Syndrome Policy Center and other DADS chapters worldwide.
“The Indianapolis DADS is a small group of courageous and devoted fathers accomplishing things of which we only dreamt in the past,” said Tom O’Neill of the National Down Syndrome Society, in a forward to the Becoming D.A.D.S. handbook. “This strikes me as particularly significant in that their success does not come from forces outside of the group, but rather it comes from within and their commitment and ownership to a mission.”
As research now proves, support groups for fathers make the entire family unit stronger. “I firmly believe that attitude of the father becomes the attitude of the family,” Joe says.
However, it wasn’t research that prompted this Geist father to start a support group; he was just trying to fill a void in his life and make a better life for Peyton. Along the way, he discovered there were many other dads just like him.