Dale Wright has been running a men’s group out of his photography studios on Wyndham St, Shepparton, for more than two decades. In that time he has reportedly helped hundreds of men tackling a myriad of issues such as divorce, depression and alcohol and drug misuse.
The program is unique, developed without the help of professionals, but the results have been considerable, judged by the attitudes and beliefs of its participants.
This week I was invited to attend a meeting and witness first-hand the how and what of Mr Wright’s program.
As I entered the studio, men of all ages were streaming in, boisterously greeting one another while bearing plates and trays of food.
Enthusiastic bear hugs took the place of handshakes and I was surprised when I was immediately greeted by a stranger and hugged. I returned the gesture somewhat perplexed.
I was given a name tag, as was everyone else, and in short order more strangers were greeting me by first name, wrapping their arms around me and slapping me on the back.
The friendly atmosphere was infectious.
I was instructed to remove my coat and shoes and hide them in a backroom.
Around 40 of us assembled in another room where phones and cameras were forbidden and instructions were given.
Guests were coming and we were to greet them with a traditional Congolese ceremony that involved kneeling.
The guests were a semi-famous singer and a former army major.
Then things got weirder.
The entire group bar Mr Wright was herded into the small backroom containing our belongings and instructed to be quiet. The lights were turned out.
We were hiding, but from what?
Picture yourself going to work as normal, then suddenly you are thrust into a situation where you are hiding in a small pitch-black room in silence with 40 strangers. An air of mischief pervaded the room. Jokes were cracked followed by good natured ‘‘shushes’’. Someone was accused of farting. More laughter and shushes.
And suddenly we started to dance out, forming a conga-line.
Our conga-line attached itself to a much smaller one — the very group we had been hiding from. Later I would learn these newcomers were inductees into the men’s group.
This was ritual, designed to surprise them and reveal to them how much support existed now they had completed their initial 13-week program, a time during which they learned to unburden themselves to a sympathetic ear and cement camaraderie though activities such as camping.
The effect on the inductees was startling. Some teared up. They introduced themselves to the ‘‘old timers’’ with more bear hugs.
We collectively formed a circle, arms around shoulders, and sang.
Later there were inspirational talks, confessionals, declarations of encouragement and support.
Some of the battles these men had faced became apparent — thoughts of suicide and stories of utter ruin, cheating wives and lovers, the desolation found in a bottle, bong or bag of methamphetamine.
Stories from men who had not seen their children in years — and suddenly I realised I had not spoken to my daughter that day.
I broke the rules, the sanctum and my failed attempt at professionalism and rushed outside and called her and was rewarded with those two words that always make me feel better, whatever is going on, ‘‘Hi, Dad.’’
Because of issues of privacy and basic journalistic ethics, this was a difficult event to cover. But the existence of the group and the apparent success of its unorthodox methods was something worth covering.
The evidence can be seen in the smiling faces of those pictured. Mr Wright said anyone who did not wish to appear was free to leave the room. Only one did.
If you feel the group might be of help to you, however unorthodox, phone Mr Wright on 0408216522. It seems his program has worked for many others.
Myles Peterson is a News journalist.