PEABODY — At first, Mike Jezowski was skeptical. Did he really want to join a group of guys he’d never met to discuss the one stressful thing they have in common: the challenges of having a child on the autism spectrum?
It was hard enough to discuss Mikey Jr.’s struggles and quirks with Mike’s own family, or his old friends back in Medford.
“I pictured a conference room and a bunch of sob stories,” said Jezowski, who now lives in Andover.
But the meeting place was a barroom, so there was that. With a little coaxing from his wife — OK, maybe more than a little — he went. When he arrived for his first dads’ group meeting on a Thursday evening two years ago, he asked the bartender where he could find the group.
They were the guys across the room joking and playing darts, he was told.
The monthly dads’ group quickly became the one can’t-miss event on Jezowski’s calendar. Through the pandemic, he faithfully attended the meetings when they were forced to switch to Zoom. Like most of his new friends, he’s thrilled to gather in person once again at the Essex County Brewing Company, in an old mill building in Peabody.
“I love this group,” Jezowski said at a meeting in April, pulling down his mask to sip his draft beer. Every meeting is like a bonus Father’s Day.
The dads’ group came about organically, when two Danvers families met at an outdoor event for parents with children on the spectrum. They began socializing together. Dan McGloin’s daughter, Rose, and Nate Perreault’s son, Charles, both 7, are now classmates at Riverside Elementary School.
The two fathers found their newfound friendship to be a balm, and their wives proposed they reach out to other dads who might want to meet up. They held their first meeting at a Middleton sports bar in January 2019. About a dozen guys showed up. After several sessions, they moved to the brewery. To date, more than two dozen fathers have participated, with newcomers arriving almost every month.
While there’s no official organization behind the dads’ group, it does have the enthusiastic backing of Northeast Arc’s Autism Support Center in Danvers. Gloria Ricardi Castillo, director of the Arc’s Family Support Centers, believes the dads’ group is the only one of its kind in the Northeast.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you talk to the mothers,” said Castillo, who has been with the Arc — the long-running regional chapter of programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — for more than 20 years. She has an adult son with autism.
“Guys are the ‘fixers,’” she said. More often than not, they’d rather try to problem-solve than express their emotions.
“I know from my own experience, my husband was always in denial, in a way,” Castillo said. “It’s hard for everyone, but somehow the Mama Bears cope with things.”
The dads’ group, she said, has given these fathers more emotional range to care for their child’s needs.
Nate Perreault’s wife, Candace, agreed.
“It’s almost like I saw the change in Nate right away,” she said. “There are things he may not want to talk to me about. Sometimes it’s easier to speak to other dads.”
Often, she said, it’s men Nate has just met. “Sometimes it’s easier talking to a stranger. They can talk about the stresses, and also the accomplishments, the little wins Charles has had. It’s fulfilling for Nate to be able to help other dads.”
After their husbands formed the dads’ group, Candace Perreault and Keri McGloin cofounded a fund-raiser called Rock the Spectrum, along with their friend, Katie Billingsley. In 2019 they hosted a fund-raiser at Peabody’s Black Box, a theater run by Northeast Arc, raising $10,000 for the Arc’s Autism Support Center.
Last fall they raised another $5,000 with a virtual 5K road race. On Aug. 6, Rock the Spectrum will host a party at the brewery, followed in November by a gala Masquerade Night at Danversport Yacht Club, which was rescheduled from last November.
Back at the brewery, Luis Velazquez spoke candidly about coming to terms with his own son’s diagnosis.
“One day it hits you like a ton of bricks,” said Velazquez, a salesman at Mini of Peabody. His son Jonis, who is 13 — the youngest of three — is fully verbal, Velzaquez said. But “he has a lot of stims” — pronounced nervous tics.
The dads’ group, Velazquez said, has helped him realize that people with autism are “not broken. They’re just different.”
One reason the brewery has proven to be an ideal spot for the group: Several members of the staff work by day as educators, social workers, or in human services. Laurel O’Meara is a special ed teacher and a part-time bartender. Her fiance, Jody Page, performs at the brewery as part of an acoustic duo.
They met at Hopeful Journeys Educational Center in Beverly, a school for children on the autism spectrum where Page teaches.
“We’re all trying to make it work,” Page said.
The children of the group are as distinct as their parents. Some are “high-functioning.” Others, such as Charles Perreault, are almost entirely nonverbal; Charles uses the TouchChat app on an iPad to communicate.
But Charles can read at a healthy level, and he has an abundance of energy, his father said. “Oh, he’s a clown.”
Mike Jezowski’s son is obsessed with maps, according to his father.
“He’s highly verbal — almost too verbal,” he said with a laugh. “He’s electric.”
All of the dads acknowledge that they face varying degrees of issues with their kids. One month one member of the group might be working through a vexing problem; the next he could be helping another member with his own family’s latest obstacle.
When that happens, Perreault said, “Your lows don’t feel so low.”
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.