Whether it’s eating ribs and swapping stories on Indy’s northeast side or spending a Saturday morning bowling with 100 kids in Carmel, a growing number of dads of kids with special needs are finding unique ways to connect.
Although still rare, dads-only groups offer an alternative to the typical parent support meetings – where fathers are often in the minority – giving dads a judgement-free space to discuss the highs and lows of parenting a child with special needs among other men.
“There are all these support groups for mothers, and the guys are usually in the background. But we’re going through this too, and we want to be involved,” says Mike Byron, who leads Down Syndrome Indiana’s DADS group – Dads Appreciating Down syndrome – in Indianapolis and whose daughter, Whitney, 8, has Down syndrome. “It’s not what you think of as a typical support group, but we do support one another.”
DADS members meet monthly for dinner out and hear from experts on topics important to the special needs community, including new therapies, financial planning and Individualized Education Program (IEP) prep. The dads also organize family events throughout the year, from a fall hayride to a golf fundraiser.
While the format is certainly different from what one might picture as a typical support group, the function is still the same, offering education, community and comradery, organizers say. “Everybody in the room knows exactly what you’re going through, and it helps you realize that you’re not alone in this. There is a community of other dads who ‘get’ it,” Byron says.
The same can be said about the Carmel Dads’ Club’s Special Sports program, which brings together dads of children with all kinds of specials needs to coach and help kids experience an array of sports.
While the kids learn the basics of a rotating schedule of sports, from T-ball to soccer, basketball and the ever-popular bowling every Saturday morning during the school year, the dads get to know one another, building a community of their own.
“There’s a friendship level and a support system that comes along with the Special Sports program,” says Dave Ollier, a one-time coach and dad to Evan, 21 this month, who has Down syndrome. “We’ve all been through issues – some severe, some not – and it’s just a humble, supportive environment.”
Ken Osborn, whose daughter Amaya, 9, has Down syndrome, makes the 30-minute drive from the family’s home in Lebanon every Saturday to take part in the program, helping to coach and assist the kids. “Even if you’re from outside the area and you feel like you maybe don’t belong, that’s not how this group is,” he stresses. “I get to talk with a lot of other dads who have similar kinds of needs, and we’ve learned about a lot of other great programs and opportunities in the area.”
More than anything, members of both dads groups emphasize that fellow fathers shouldn’t feel pressured to make every meeting or take part in every sport. Their message is the same – simply come as you are and meet other dads who understand what it means to raise a child with special needs.
“Just come to a meeting and see what it’s all about. If it’s not for you, that’s fine, and you don’t have to come to meetings to attend our events,” Byron with DADS says. “We have a good time, and we offer reassurance, tips and assistance along the way.”
Support groups just for fathers are still scarce. If you’re interested in finding out how to start a group in your area, visit www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Finding-or-Starting-a-Support-Group for more information.
When: 2nd Tuesday of every month, 6:30 pm
Where: GT South Ribhouse (5711 E 71st St, Indianapolis)
More Info: www.dsindiana.org/dads.php
Carmel Dads’ Club Special Sports
When: Saturday mornings during the school year. Bowling runs January-March.
Where: Locations vary by sport