See photos and video: 'For Michael' - Saturday's event led the fight against addiction

The “For Michael” fundraising event had fairly humble beginnings. The friends and family of Michael Taylor, who lost a fight with addiction last year, sought to hold an event that would both honor the memory of Michael and raise money and awareness to help others struggling with addiction. From there, the idea grew into a summer kick off event. Partnering with Shatterproof, a national organization dedicated to fighting the stigma surrounding addiction, only grew the event even further. As the time went on, what came into being was a day that was truly special, with a crowd of over a thousand people descending onto Weed Beach in memory of Michael. By the time all was said and done, over $220,000 was raised.

The day was opened by Gary Mendell, who is the founder of Shatterproof, and a father who lost a son to addiction. Mendell spoke to the crowd about the importance of having a vision, and of working together towards a goal. Shatterproof not only fights addiction, but against the stigma that the disease of addiction carries. “If you have cancer, you go to the hospital. Heart disease? Let’s get you to the hospital. But if you’re an addict? Go to jail, and don’t relapse,” Mendell said, illustrating the need to change the conversation around the disease. “Today helps change that,” Mendell said, adding, “events like this should be happening all over the country.”

The main attraction of the day was a boat race. Teams of four entered and had to build their own boat for a relay race, with two team members racing out from the beach, around a buoy, and returning to the other two team members who would take their turn. Rings End was a sponsor for the event, and provided materials, as teams had a capped budget to make sure all were on equal footing. Some boats, like Team Excelsior, featured rotating wheels and paddles. Others, like team Yachty By Nature, simply attached two lounge chairs to some floatation aids, and paddled with oars. The Darien High School Tech Ed department team, led by Jeromy Nelson, arrived with their boat aptly named Bored Of Education.  All in all 21 boats entered the race, and competed in four heats. The heat winners faced off in a championship race, with Team CBRE taking home the gold for the day.

Many of the boats were crewed by teams of Michael’s friends and family, but there were others crewed by those who knew Michael in other ways. State Representative William Tong entered a boat into the race, which he crewed with Jordan Fieldstein, Eilis Meagher, and Daniela Badiola.

“I knew Mike. He worked on my campaign in 2006,” said Tong, who spoke glowingly about Michael’s character. “This is a really great day. They were able to raise about a quarter million dollars. And they’ll invest that in people and fighting addiction,” said Tong. The Finn Dixon Herling, Tong’s team, raised over $20,000 in donations on its own.

The top fundraising team of the 21 entries was Hall And Boats, a team of Kate Taylor, Laura Sullivan, Cait Sullivan, and Grace Ann Sweeney, which raised just over $30,000, and that earned them a special award on the day. The Spirit Award for the day was awarded to The Lighthouse. The Lighthouse was another sponsor for the event, and is a local organization that helps to combat addiction in the area, offering sober living and support to those in recovery. The Lighthouse team was made up of Chris, Jeff, Jack, Bill, and Ross.

State Representative Terrie Wood was on hand as well for the day. Members of her family entered a boat named Goombay Splash. Wood called the day “truly inspiring,” and said she was moved by the tremendous outpouring of community support.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson was on hand for the day as well. “I’m deeply moved by the courage it took for Michael’s parents and close friends to turn the tragedy of his loss into something so positive.  Michael’s love of life, family and friends was so evident on Saturday and was magnified by the community coming together to remember him and raise awareness to end the stigma of addiction,” Stevenson said. The words of Mendell also struck a chord with Stevenson, as she said, “Addiction is a disease and deserves the same focused attention that we give to diseases like cancer and diabetes.  Simply by changing our mindset about addiction, we can save lives like Michael’s and the 916 other lives lost to opioid addiction in Connecticut in 2016,” before praising Shatterproof and the work done to end the stigma surrounding addiction.

“I’m so proud of Will Herling, Will Bergen and all the other organizers and volunteers who conspired to make Saturday’s event such a huge success.

 The generosity of our town is unparalleled,” Stevenson closed.

Other highlights of the day included what proved to be a very popular Dunk Tank. The more you donated, the closer you could stand to the target, with DHS history teacher Anthony Sweeney and Michael’s father, Frank Taylor, graciously volunteering to be dunked. There was also a silent auction which featured autographed memorabilia from Bruce Springsteen, gift cards and packages donated local businesses like Joy Ride and a number of restaurants, and art from local artists. Big ticket items included a sunset cruise donated by Darien residents and a sports package from Villanova, included autographs from basketball coach Jay Wright and a bundle of other items.

The day was capped by a performance from Tramps Like Us, the nation’s premier Bruce Springsteen Tribute band. People grabbed food from the three different food trucks that were on hand for the day, and enjoyed the show.

Will Herling, one of the primary organizers of the day, said, “This is better than expected. The amount of fun, the atmosphere, it's something Mike would’ve really enjoyed.”

“The amount of support and the way friends, family, community have come together is really inspiring,” Herling added.

It is important to note that the entire event was completely substance free.

The crowd included people of all ages, and some had come from across the state to be there for the day. As the town’s Board of Education is in talks about changes to the commitment policy that affects students at DHS who are caught using drugs and alcohol, events like the For Michael fundraiser can serve as an example of just how much the community can do when it works together, and how much fun is there is to be had without use of a chemical. With so much money raised and so many people reached, it is reasonable to think of the For Michael fundraiser as a jumping off point to a much larger conversation about what the town of Darien can do to fight addiction.