Column: Nonprofit looks to change the story on addiction

By Alexander Soule

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The framed Serenity Prayer sits on Gary Mendell’s shelf in Norwalk, but long before that it was on his nightstand, helping him face many a morning with its message of accepting the things one cannot change, following the 2011 death of his son Brian.

It took him several months to focus on the prayer’s other message — having the courage to change the things we can — but years after the fact, Mendell believes the organization he created is making a difference.

More than four years after Mendell created the nonprofit Shatterproof as a way to marshal support for families dealing with the specter of addiction, the organization finds itself attempting to instill change in particularly virulent times, with Connecticut and the rest of the nation suffering heroin and opioid addiction epidemics destroying the lives of people who come under the drugs’ sway.

“We need to accelerate the growth and related impact that we are having, because it is so desperately needed now,” Mendell said. “As well as we are doing helping people, saving lives, we need to build our resources quicker and do more faster because there’s too many people dying needlessly.”

Gary Mendell. Gary Mendell.

Mendell’s aim is to make Shatterproof akin to the scourge of addiction in the same way as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society or Autism Speaks are for their respective missions, coordinating support, serving as a clearinghouse for new approaches and pushing for change, including through state legislatures from Connecticut to California as well as through federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Given southwestern Connecticut’s impressive list of homegrown nonprofits with national and international reach — a roster that includes AmeriCares, Save the Children and the SeriousFun Children’s Network inspired by Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp — it is not a stretch to think Mendell could pull it off.

“The vision then was to go buy a house in Bridgeport and see if I could run a good halfway house and help parents and maybe 20 kids a year,” Mendell said. “What changed was (in early) 2012 — I’m in this office every day, studying like crazy …I had two shelves of white notebooks with all the stuff I had learned; I had been flying around the country meeting people, and there were five things written on a sheet of paper that totally changed everything.”

Those capsules include the scale of the epidemic, particularly for young adults, teens and adolescents; the stigma afflicting those who struggle with addiction; an ever-mushrooming field of research not getting funneled into the hands of those who can help families; and the need for a dedicated national organization to make it all happen.

As he mulled the list in March 2012, he glanced up to a framed photo that was the last he had ever taken of Brian, when his son had interrupted a bike ride to lend a hand to strangers at the roadside.

“That was a moment,” Mendell said. “That was like … ‘I am going to leave my business (and) I am going to start an American Cancer Society for addiction.’”

Building a national organization was nothing new for Mendell, but the arena Shatterproof was tackling was very much so. Growing up in Easton where he continues to live today, Mendell’s father owned the first-ever Duchess restaurant in Bridgeport. Gary Mendell attended Cornell University’s hospitality school and decided to go into the hotel business with his brother Steve, making their first purchase the hotel that today is the Trumbull Marriott Merritt Parkway.

They would accumulate more than 20 venues before selling that first company to Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. Gary Mendell would become president of Starwood under CEO Barry Sternlicht, a period when it bought both Westin and ITT, before going out on his own anew with HEI Hotels & Resorts in Westport that later moved to Norwalk’s Merritt 7 complex. After Starwood’s recent sale to Marriott International, HEI is now the largest independent hotel owner based in Connecticut.

Even as Mendell built HEI, his son Brian was spending much of his late teens and early adult life in repeat rehab attempts to break his drug addictions, according to his father, who said he believed his son had been clean for more than a year when he committed suicide on Oct. 20, 2011.

“There is a shame and a stigma that goes along with being addicted,” Mendell said. “It’s not viewed as a disease; it’s viewed as, ‘Brian, why don’t you just stop? What’s the matter with you? Why are you the bad kid?’ That’s how society views you. You start falling further and further behind your friends … and he got depressed.”

Mendell has spent the years since Brian’s death trying to help others help their own loved ones. Today other titles have squeezed onto the Serenity Prayer shelf in Mendell’s Norwalk office, like “Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding” and “Communities that Care.” In an effort to raise awareness, Shatterproof holds fundraisers nationally featuring people rappelling off buildings. It plans to add 5-kilometer charity runs as well, and locally it hosts a golf, tennis, paddle tennis and dinner fundraiser, scheduled this year for Columbus Day on Oct. 10 at Rolling Hills Golf Club in Wilton, with information online at support.shatterproof.org.

Shatterproof has brought Mendell into contact with thousands of people — no small number of whom have suffered through their own family tragedies. He says it gives him strength, but he always has the rock that is his memories of Brian, and believes his son would be thrilled to see what has been accomplished in his name.

“He said, ‘Dad, someday people will realize I’m not a bad kid — I just have a bad disease and I am trying my hardest,’” Mendell said. “That is the foundation for everything we are doing here.”

— Leslie Lake contributed to this report.

Alexander Soule is a reporter for Hearst Connecticut Media. He can be reached at Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-354-1047; www.twitter.casoulman.

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Alexander Soule
Bio: Former Fairfield County Bureau Chief Fairfield County Business Journal

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