A long way down for a good cause

Raising the money needed to tackle a major disease may seem akin to climbing a mountain.

In Gary Mendell's case, it also involves descending tall buildings.

In 2012, Mendell founded Shatterproof, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to fighting drug and alcohol addiction, a disease that led to his 25-year-old son Brian's suicide in October 2011.

Shatterproof's main fundraising tool? Rappelling.

Mendell and dozens of others are scheduled to rappel down the exterior of the 22-story Hilton Hartford in the seventh of 16 rappelling events the foundation has scheduled around the country this year. On July 29, Len Wolman, chairman and chief executive officer of the Waterford Group, will join Mendell in climbing down the hotel in which Wolman's company has an ownership stake and manages.

"We target certain cities and certain buildings in those cities, and then we find out who the owners are," Mendell said in an interview.

Mendell well knew who owned the Hilton. He and Wolman have been competitors for years.

"We'd see each other at conferences and have dinner," Wolman said of Mendell, who co-founded Norwalk-based HEI Hotels & Resorts in 2002. "Shortly after his son committed suicide I got together with him. The pain and anguish … the hell this guy was going through really got to me. I wanted to help."

Wolman, his brother Mark, his wife Robyn and niece Lian have all signed up to rappel in Hartford, as have more than 30 people who work for the Waterford Group. Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, which owns Mohegan Sun, and his brother, Mark, a tribal councilor, also plan to participate.

In recent years, Mohegan Sun has hosted annual rappelling events to raise money for Special Olympics.

"Addiction's an extreme disease," Mendell said, and building awareness of it called for some extreme measures, hence Shatterproof's connection with rappelling.

Timing has been crucial to the foundation's success.

"This is the best time to form this organization because of two historic pieces of legislation that have recently taken full effect," Mendell said. "I couldn't have done this 15 years ago."

One of those laws is the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, whose final provisions became fully effective July 1. It requires that health plans that cover mental health and addiction disorders provide coverage in those areas equal to their coverage of physical disorders - the same co-pays, the same annual and lifetime limits on reimbursements for treatment and the same quality of care.

The second law is the Affordable Care Act, which lists mental health and substance abuse disorders among the diseases that most health plans must cover.

"It's taken addiction out of the criminal justice system and moved it into the health care system," Mendell said.

Shatterproof's rappelling events generally attract 75 participants - two at a time descend on separate ropes - and raise an average of $135,000 through pledges. After a robust initial response to the Hartford event, Shatterproof and Over The Edge, the company that arranges the rappelling and trains the climbers the morning before they descend, added a third rope, opening up space for 37 more people. About a dozen spots were still available heading into this past weekend.

Mendell takes part in every one of Shatterproof's events, which requires him to set aside his aversion to high places.

"I'm really afraid of heights, but it's OK," he said. "I just never look down. I go to the edge, lean back and just look straight ahead at the building all the way down. It's really a lot of fun."

Wolman, for his part, admitted to some trepidation about the upcoming descent.

"I can't say that I'm not a little nervous," he said. "But full disclosure: I've bungee-jumped off a New Zealand bridge."

It was several years ago, in Auckland, Wolman said, and he did it with his son, Nathan, now 26.

"It was very quick," Wolman said. "You go straight down toward the water, then bounce up, down, up again. Then you pull a ripcord and it pulls you up."

"I could never do that," Mendell said.

In an interview, Wolman steered the questioning to the purpose and goals of Shatterproof.

"It's really about the cause," he said. "It's about getting the word out that addiction is a disease. It's about getting the stigma associated with it removed and getting it parity with other diseases in terms of funding for research."

Mendell, inspired by his son's death, intended a small charity at first and began to research drug and alcohol addiction.

"I was shocked at what I learned," he said. "It affects 25 million people - one in 10 above the age of 12. It's the third-leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer. And it's really a disease about children; eight out of 10 who suffer from addiction become addicted by their 19th birthday."

Mendell was also stunned to find that the government had developed a great body of knowledge about addiction. But without private funding and an organization devoted to raising awareness about the disease, much of the research had languished on bookshelves.

"Two words came to mind," he said, "Tragic and hope. It was tragic that what was known could have helped my son and others. But it also gave me hope."

With Shatterproof, which he launched with $5 million of his own money and to which he now devotes himself full time, Mendell hopes to bridge the gap.

b.hallenbeck@theday

SHATTERPROOF

To learn more about the nonprofit organization, log on to www.shatterproof.org.

To register for the Hartford rappelling event, go to the Shatterproof site, click on the "Shatterproof Challenge" box and, once on that page, click the box that says "Hartford, CT - 07/29/14"

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