You’re at Starbucks on Colorado Boulevard for a noon appointment with a local author/stand-up comic and a talented singer/songwriter but can’t seem to pick them out in the crowd. So you call the number you were given to tell them you’ve arrived.
“We’re here, outside on the patio,” the voice responds.
You see a hand waving at a table outside along the walkway, realizing you walked right past them.
If you failed to recognize Zack Peter and Ry Romero at first glance, it’s understandable. After all, you were looking for two autism advocates who’ve worked alongside actress Jenny McCarthy — one a published author and stand-up comic who’s performed at the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory and the other a musician who’s gained a small following gracing local stages.
But what you see before you are two young, unassuming guys, both in their second year at Pasadena City College. By appearances they seem like any normal college students. But appearances can be deceiving.
Peter, 19, and Romero, 20, are in the business of putting their passions to work, something people twice their age talk about more than do. In addition to their individual efforts, the pair recently started a weekly Web talk show, “Just Plain Ridiculous,” which takes a comedic look at extraordinary news headlines and airs Wednesdays on YouTube.com. McCarthy herself was a special guest on an Oct. 24 airing.
“It’s like the stories you hear, where you’re like, ‘Really?’” Romero says of the show’s concept. “We just state our opinions about it. It’s very comfortable and homey. I think that’s why people like us.”
“Just Plain Ridiculous” draws on Peter’s skills as an organizer and editor and Romero’s ability to have fun while getting the job done. But it also reveals the friends as a sort of modern-age Odd Couple, two guys who differ in their
approaches to life but share a common interest in autism awareness (both have family members living with the disorder) and a belief that when it comes to accomplishing great work, age is just a number.
“Just because we’re young, a lot of people often don’t want to listen to us,” Peter says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t make an impact.”
Just plain Zack
For Peter, “the biz” is familiar territory. At age 15, he organized his first baseball fundraiser, “Play Now for Autism,” which featured members of the Dodgers and raised about $2,000 for autism awareness. The inspiration for the event was Peter’s younger brother Ethan, known by family members as “Deets.”
“I remember playing with him. All of a sudden, it was like a light switch — he just turned off,” he says of Ethan, now 10. “I noticed the change in my brother, and it was up to me to figure out what was going on.”
In 2010, Peter began working with Generation Rescue, a nonprofit organization focusing on autism resources and recovery. Founded in 2005, the organization got a PR boost when McCarthy became a spokeswoman after her son Evan was diagnosed with the developmental disorder.
Peter has organized numerous events in the past few years to raise awareness of autism spectrum disorders, including the comedy show “Laugh Now for Autism,” which paired him with writers from E! Network’s “Chelsea Lately” show and members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre.
If there’s one thing he’s learned through the course of his event-planning exploits, it’s that you’ll never know if something is possible until you try.
“Some people wait for the door to open, and if the door shuts on them, they just accept it,” he says. “I’ve kind of learned sometimes you have to make your own door.”
In that spirit, Peter created the Internet radio show “It’s On with Zack,” and wrote a book about his experiences being a sibling to someone with autism, called “Saving Deets!: A Family’s Journey with Autism.”
“I think the book is the perfect introduction to autism,” says Peter’s mom, Nancy Quesada, who lives in Los Angeles. “It’s a collaboration of different stories and different perspectives. That’s what autism is — it’s everybody’s viewpoints, everybody’s challenges and everybody’s adventures.”
Peter followed “Saving Deets!” with two more memoirs —“Charity Bites!: The Untold Stories of the Dog-Eat-Dog World of Autism Activism” and “When Life Hands You Lemons…Throw Them At People”— and a line of autism awareness T-shirts. Today, his activism largely benefits Generation Rescue, where in 2010 he worked as a fundraising and social media intern.
By the time “It’s On with Zack” wrapped up production last December, Peter was ready for a well-deserved break. But that period of rest would be short-lived; just one month later, he met Romero in a theater class at PCC and formed a fast friendship that would inspire a new wave of projects, linking the futures of both and sending them off in a powerful new trajectory.
Hey, it’s Ry
Romero grew up in South Pasadena in a family of musicians and, at 17, taught himself to play the guitar, piano and ukulele. Soon, he was penning songs in the style of John Mayer and Jason Mraz.
A bit of a jock and attending PCC classes in pursuit of a degree in child development, Romero admits his signing up for a winter semester theater class was a bit uncharacteristic. The friendship he developed there with Peter was even more so.
“When I first met Zack, all I thought was, ‘Oh great, I’m going to have to deal with this guy,” Romero jokes. “But we started talking and hanging out, and found out we had things in common.”
Now the two meet several times a week to plan, film and edit “Just Plain Ridiculous” and to talk about Romero’s music career, which Peter partially manages.
Autism awareness is an important component of the friends’ connection. Romero, who has twin cousins on the spectrum, regularly attends benefit concerts and events. So when Peter pitched a joint effort benefiting Generation Rescue, he agreed.
This spring, Romero will release a song he’s written, “Through the Storm,” exclusively on iTunes with the proceeds going to the Sherman Oaks nonprofit. A summer benefit concert showcasing Romero’s song is planned for the summer, Peter says.
“Through the Storm” is a departure away from the romantic songs Romero has performed at places like Buster’s Coffee House in South Pasadena and North Hollywood’s Republic of Pie.
“I wanted to do something different to show people I wasn’t this sappy songwriter,” he says of the song, which he was unable to finish until he saw it through the lens of autism activism. “I feel it was made for this organization. The best way I knew how to give back was through songwriting.”
No matter what the future holds in store for Peter and Romero, the friends are pretty certain this time in their lives will be memorable. Maybe it’s because of the fun they’re having, or because each has something the other naturally needs — Peter’s persistence helps Romero’s budding career, while Romero brings a laid-back affability that draws Peter out of his fortress of seriousness.
“Being a part of this with Zack is defining who I am as a person. It’s made a big impact on my life, and it’s overwhelming but for the better,” Romero says. “I just hope people can see what we’re doing has a much bigger picture than just the entertainment and the music. No matter where you are in your life, you can still make a difference.”