To members of the Down syndrome community in Indiana, tire dealer Joe Meares is a visionary and an inspiration.
The father of four daughters, including 6-year-old Peyton, who was born with the chromosomal disorder, Mr. Meares is the founder, spirit and leader of the first father-specific Down syndrome organization in the U.S.
Called D.A.D.S. (Dads Appreciating Down Syndrome), the group began in 2002 as a vehicle for fathers to come together to support each other and become more involved in the lives of their children with special needs. From that initial meeting of eight fathers, the organization has grown to more than 250 members while spawning similar groups in other states.
``When it comes to Down syndrome, there's no limit to what he's willing to do to help or act on it,'' said Cindy Busch, executive director of the Indiana Down Syndrome Foundation.
The impact of D.A.D.S. has been profound.
``It has helped for me to be a better father, period, and it's helped me be a better husband,'' said Kerry Sell, a member of D.A.D.S. and the father of Jessica, age 3, who has Down syndrome.
``It's raised my awareness of how much of an impact I can have in my child's life, in her upbringing and advocating for her, my daughter with special needs, but also my other children. It's helped me get past what I had dealt with in learning my child had Down syndrome, needing surgery and all the medical junk that came with it. Frankly it catapulted me past it and got me back in and engaged with my family.''
For his work on behalf of Down syndrome and others with disabilities, Mr. Meares has become the 11th recipient of the Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award. The honor is presented annually by Tire Business to a tire dealer or retreader who is making a difference in his or her community through civic and charitable contributions.
Mr. Meares, the owner of United Tire Management in Indianapolis, was chosen for the award by an independent panel outside the tire industry. In selecting him, the judges said they were ``impressed and excited to see a father take such an initiative as this and turn it into something that really makes a difference in the lives of others on both a local and national level.''
Mr. Meares, 43, was honored Nov. 2 during the Tire Industry Association's annual convention in Las Vegas, where he received an engraved medal and a $1,000 donation from Tire Business to the charity of his choice. This year the money is going to support D.A.D.S.
Joining the `fraternity'
Prior to the birth of Peyton, Mr. Meares' charitable and civic efforts were limited more or less to writing checks. At the time he was traveling a lot for his job as a partner at United Industrial Tire, which was partially owned by the industrial tire company Solideal Group, so he didn't have a lot of time to devote to charitable causes. But with his wife Cheri expecting their fourth child, he no longer wanted to be on the road.
So in 1997, Mr. Meares left his job of 12 years and started United Tire Management, taking 100-percent control of United Industrial Tire's business in most of Indiana.
On Dec. 26 of that year, Peyton was born, and a day later Mr. Meares became, as he put it, ``a member of the Down syndrome fraternity.''
``I didn't know a thing about it,'' he said of the disorder, which affects growth and development. ``There was a complete range of emotions, but it was mostly boiled down to ignorance and fear of the unknown.''
To learn more about Down syndrome and what it meant for their daughter, Mr. Meares and his wife began reading up on the subject-only to become even more confused. ``It was like 20 cubic yards of Down syndrome dropped on my driveway like springtime mulch, and I didn't have a shovel,'' he said.
But it was never about Peyton, he stressed. ``It was my inadequacy and frustration. It was something I couldn't fix.''
Peyton, he said, changed all that. ``I began to realize she needed what every other kid needed, and I began to see the similarities and not the differences.''
About six months after Peyton was born, the Meareses' opinions about Down syndrome softened. They began to think more about what Peyton could accomplish and not her limitations. They got involved in the local Down syndrome community and started going to social events.
That's when it struck Mr. Meares: These organizations were 95-percent driven by women. Mothers, he said, are perceived as the primary caregivers. They were the ones working with the specialists.
At social functions for these groups, he found the men had ``important'' jobs like cooking the hot dogs, moving tables and breaking down chairs and volunteering for the Buddy Walk, an awareness builder and fund raiser for Down syndrome that Mr. Meares actively supports.
`Put up or shut up'
As dads, ``we weren't involved in meaningful dialogue about Down syndrome,'' he said. Even talking to friends was dissatisfying.
``I felt my friends would listen but couldn't relate to it (what I was going through),'' he said. ``They didn't have much to offer but an ear-but that wasn't enough.''
That's when the idea of forming an organization for dads of children with Down syndrome came to him.
``I started out as a dad against Down syndrome, quickly became the dad accepting Down syndrome and when I evolved to a dad appreciating Down syndrome, I developed a need to help other fathers get to the place where I was,'' he said.
But while he had the idea, he didn't have the drive. He wanted someone else to start it.
He suggested the concept to Mary Delaney, a board member with the Indiana Down Syndrome Foundation (IDSF) and kept bugging her until she challenged him to ``put up or shut up.''
But once he decided to do it, he ``jumped in with both feet,'' she said.
As a board member of IDSF and Best Buddies of Indiana (a non-profit organization that pairs non-disabled high school or college students with teens or young adults with intellectual disabilities in academic, social and job settings), Ms. Delaney knows Mr. Meares through his involvement with both organizations.
``I have never seen someone with so much energy and passion,'' she said in describing Mr. Meares. ``He makes things happen. He follows through. He's a worker.''
The IDSF offers parent support groups, but mostly mothers attend them, she said.
In D.A.D.S., Mr. Meares created an organization that allowed the men-who had the same feelings-to come and to have an outlet, Ms. Delaney said.
D.A.D.S. started with an e-mail from Mr. Meares to seven fathers of children with Down syndrome.
>From that initial gathering of eight dads, the organization has blossomed to more than 250 members, with new dads joining each month.
The group holds regular monthly meetings with usually 40 or more dads in attendance. It also communicates regularly with members via an e-mail loop and print newsletter.
``I knew for us to get together and share was a good idea,'' Mr. Meares said in organizing that first meeting. ``I thought we'd do some projects focused on dad-weighted issues. But I had no idea of the depth for the need for this group.''
To its members, D.A.D.S. has helped them get past a lot of the issues associated with having a child with Down syndrome.
``The group offers a kind of hope and assurance,'' said Scott Harding, a member of D.A.D.S, whose daughter Lauren, 6, has Down syndrome.
Males especially tend to internalize some of the realities and challenges that come along with having a child with a disability, he explained. ``Just talking with the other fathers and being involved with them, hearing their triumphs and tragedies, makes you realize you're not alone in this.''
But it's more than Mr. Meares simply starting a group for dads. It's the way the group meets, according to Mr. Sell. ``It's not a support group in a church basement with folding chairs and coffee. I think it really meets guys where they need to be met.''