Santa Rosa group launches for dads of kids with disabilities

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For more information about the dads group and Common Ground Society, go to:

At the end of the picnic and after the hike, the guys gathered up for a group photo — something the fledgling group for dads with kids with developmental disabilities could post on social media in the hopes of growing membership.

But one dad begged off.

Organizer Bobby Payne didn’t think too much of it and smiled for the photo. Later, the man who didn’t want to be in the picture, explained to Payne that nobody in his social circle knew his son lived with a disability.

He had never told anyone.

“That broke my heart. That poor dad has never gotten the help he probably needed,” Payne said. “But he came to this group. The fact that that one man came made the whole thing worthwhile. On top of the million other things … that alone made it worthwhile.”

‘There are so many people out there who feel alone’

“It” was the inaugural meeting of a group so new it doesn’t even have an official name, just a purpose: To offer dads of kids with developmental disabilities a place to be among each other. They can talk about their kids, or not. They can talk about their struggles, or not. They can release a little bit of the weight of day-to-day life, without fail.

It’s the brainchild of folks at Santa Rosa-based Common Ground Society, a larger group started about three years ago to help support families with kids who have disabilities.

Ask folks at Common Ground and they all say that dads group is addressing an obvious need for so many men.

Common Ground Society began as a casual thing, mostly moms meeting up to talk and commiserate a little, share resources and support each other. Calling themselves “Just Two Moms,” co-founders Larkin O’Leary and Jessica Hunter started giving presentations focusing on inclusion and acceptance to any group that would have them.

There are now 400 members in Common Ground Society and the group is a registered nonprofit. The Instagram account has more than 10,000 followers and their Facebook page is followed by nearly 3,000 people. Their volunteer list is 25 members deep.

As the group has grown, the focus has widened. In addition to presentations — the speaking schedule in classrooms and boardrooms was packed until the COVID-19 pandemic hit — Common Ground also facilitates meet-ups for parents, for kids, for Spanish speakers, for caregivers.

“Our goal is to link arms and walk this journey together,” O’Leary said. “There are so many people out there who feel alone and who don’t know what the next steps are.”

Next steps, or first steps. Common Ground reaches out to parents as soon as possible, starting from that bewildering, confusing, earthshaking moment they receive a diagnosis about their child, O’Leary said. The group hopes to help parents find existing resources, tap into help and support, and not reinvent the wheel.

They have care packages for new parents — a bag with baby clothes and goodies. But the most important thing in the bag, according to O’Leary, is a letter. In it, the folks at Common Ground list supports and contacts and resources, but above all, a message: We’ve got you.

“More than anything I want people to know that they are not alone and they have a community behind them,” she said. “I want people to understand, if you get a diagnosis or if you hear somebody had a baby or gets a diagnosis, Common Ground is here for you.”

O’Leary said there are support groups in Sonoma County for families with kids who have various diagnoses, but they can be limiting. Her 7-year-old son James has Down syndrome but also deals with various other issues, some of which have kept him hospitalized for long stretches of time. And kids with autism can have a wide array of things they deal with. For the families of kids with extremely rare disorders, there are rarely local groups for them, O’Leary said.

And let’s face it, no kid is the same. And besides, with her message of inclusion, it felt better to welcome all comers regardless of diagnosis.

“I wanted a catch all,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary said her support system — family, friends, former co-workers — is amazing. But there is a connection between parents of kids with varying needs that almost can’t be explained.

“They get it,” she said

But even within that safe space, O’Leary noticed in recent months something missing among the rapidly growing group — there was no space just for dads.

‘I felt like I failed’

Payne remembers when he got the diagnosis that his son, William, now 9, is autistic.

He and his wife were living in the Azores, where he was in the U.S. Air Force. William was their first child, so they didn’t realize he wasn’t hitting some typical developmental milestones.

Find out more

For more information about the dads group and Common Ground Society, go to:

But when William was 2 1/2 they took him to be assessed.

Before they walked in the door, Payne remembers the doctor telling him there would toys and balls and things on the floor, but she asked that neither he nor his wife Ella direct William’s play. When William walked into the area, he bypassed every one of the toys and went straight for a shoelace.

“I didn’t think anything of it, but that was a sign apparently, of his development,” he said.

The doctor’s reaction was swift, Payne said.

“She said, ’Your son is autistic and we need to get you off this island and back to the U.S. where you can get resources,’” he said. “I felt lost as a father. It was a really hard moment.

“I felt like I failed as a father. I shouldn’t feel like that, but sometimes as a man, as a dad, you feel like you have to have stuff squared away,” he said. “Like nothing fazes you and you are this big tough guy — and that’s complete nonsense. We are afraid to show that and we hide that inside.”

Case in point: Payne, who O’Leary tapped to organize that first meet-up, had to explain this all to me. He wouldn’t have had to use these words or the stories to show his meaning had he been speaking with another dad in a similar place.

“We know we can speak freely and let that all out,” he said.

‘It’s a moment of self care’

Gage Purdy is father of two sons. His 13-year-old lives with autism spectrum disorder.

Purdy raved about the group. Over and over he used the word “vulnerable,” to describe how the 17 dads who showed up to the first meeting opened up.

“It’s beautiful to watch dads be open and express what is difficult,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you have to have solution. Everyone was just accepting of where you are at.”

But in one particular case, Purdy did have a solution. He was talking with a dad whose son also lives with autism, and like Purdy’s boy did when he was younger, struggled at times with eye contact.

Purdy told the other dad that they had set up a mirror in their home so that his son could look at someone without staring directly into faces. He called it a “light bulb moment” in his home, so he shared it with the other dad.

“It was something new to try,” he said.

“Success is really hard to define,” he said. “It’s a moment of self care. Even if they are not feeling like they can express themselves, this is an opportunity for dads to just separate from all the difficulties and to bond with people who know what is going on with them.”

‘You don’t have to hide or pretend’

At the recent meeting, there were a million moving moments, all of which told Payne the group was needed. But in addition to the interactions that tugged at his heart, there was a grounding feeling among the men that comes from simply being heard and seen.

With this group, a nod of the head or a knowing smile spoke volumes.

“They could say ’I understand what you are feeling,’” Payne said of the other dads.

“I know people have said, ’I understand,’ before, but they don’t understand. They are probably trying, but they don’t. But I do. And he does and he does. And you don’t have to hide or pretend or act like you have it figured out because we all understand.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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