Apr. 8—NORTH ANDOVER — So far there are just a handful of puzzle pieces on the wall at Dominic's Diner, which overlooks the runway at the Lawrence Municipal Airport.
But as the month of April moves forward, owners Gebran and Vicky Khoury hope to see the entire wall fill up with color above the words, "Paint The World With Acceptance."
Visitors to Dominic's Diner can donate any amount to purchase a puzzle piece. Then, at the end of the April, which is Autism Awareness Month, 100% of the proceeds will go to Melmark New England in Andover.
"We will add it all up," said Vicky Khoury of the diner's annual autism awareness fundraiser.
The couple's oldest son, Dominic, 10, was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at age 2. He now lives and is thriving in a residential program at Melmark, the couple said.
"He loves it and it's comforting for us to know he's happy there. ... It was an extremely difficult decision for us to make to put him in a residential program. But he gets out of the car and he's running in and smiling and laughing," said Gebran Khoury.
"It gives me reassurance we made the right decision," he added.
As a young child, Dominic was non-verbal. Doctors told the couple it wasn't a good sign if he wasn't speaking by age 4, Vicky explained.
But once he turned 5, there was a "big moment" and Dominic just started to talk.
"He always had the understanding piece. He always had the words. He just wasn't able to use them," Gebran explained.
Dominic's ability to speak was life changing because, the couple said, because he could make his wants and needs known verbally.
The Khoury family, including Dominic and his two younger brothers, Bentley, 7, and Jaxon, 4, live in Methuen. Vicky Khoury said the Methuen School System was excellent and supportive to Dominic's needs, agreeing he should attend Melmark.
"They were behind us the whole way," she said.
Melmark New England is a private organization dedicated to serving children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, acquired brain injury, neurological diseases and disorders, co-morbidity and severe challenging behaviors.
The couple said Melmark was the "right team" for Dominic and he was able to bloom from day one.
As for many people, March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, was the start of a tough time for the Khoury family.
The couple initially tried to keep their business open, serving takeout meals during the lockdown. But eventually, Dominic's Diner was closed for 84 days straight. The family stayed afloat using saving and stimulus money, Gebran said.
The couple's younger children started attending school virtually. But Dominic was having trouble adjusting and the structure of his school days was fractured, they said.
The child who was once happy-go-lucky and playing with dinosaurs and Legos became agitated and began injuring himself.
They came to the realization that Dominic needed around-the-clock care. Both Vicky and Gebran stressed they feel as parents of an autistic child that this is an important thing to talk about and not "sugar coat."
"We tried to keep him safe," Vicky stressed. "'But he needed more than we could provide."
Gebran added, "We needed help and knew we had to do something. They can provide the structure we can't provide here at home."
Dominic's transition into residential care was successful from the start and the Khourys said they are comforted knowing he's happy there.
Right now, due to COVID-19 protocols, visits home are restricted. But starting in May, the family will be able to take Dominic home on weekends.
Gebran said it's important to share the "ups and downs" of caring for a child on the spectrum.
"There are probably people out there that live what we do," he said.
Dominic's Diner, 492 Sutton St., is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.