Pittsburgh rappellers descend to raise addiction issue

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As ominous storm clouds rumbled on the horizon, a woman dressed in black descended the side of the Westin Convention Center. Crowds stood at the foot of the building, anxiously looking up.

Then a message boomed through a loudspeaker: “No need to hide your valuables. This Catwoman is out here just to support a good cause.”

Sporting a blue helmet in addition to her black mask, Jennifer Pedrazzoli, an account director at the Westin, was one of more than 80 people who rappelled down the side of the hotel Tuesday to raise awareness about alcohol and drug addiction.

The event, which raised more than $80,000, was organized by Shatterproof, an organization based in Connecticut that was founded two years ago to combat addiction.

Rather than opt for the traditional walk, run or bike ride, the organization’s founder, Gary Mendell, said he chose rappelling because an extreme disease calls for extreme fundraising.

“It really fits our message,” said Scott Hickling, Shatterproof’s assistant director of special events. “It involves trusting someone else to help you and conquering your fears.”

Industrial rope experts from Over the Edge supervised the technical aspect of the event, guiding participants through safety training, then launching them two at a time off the side of the building. Wearing yellow and black full-body industrial harnesses, participants — who had to raise at least $1,000 to partake — took between five and 15 minutes to rappel down the facade, squeezing a handle through leather gloves to descend along brightly colored cables.

Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

Alyssa Peterson, left, and Felicia Kelly, right, both employees of the Westin Convention Center Hotel, shade their eyes as they look up to watch other members of the hotel staff rappel down the side of the building.

Standing on the roof of the Westin in brown cargo pants and a vest emblazoned with his motorcycle club’‍s logo, Pittsburgh firefighter Harold Mackey said that as someone recovering from an alcohol addiction he felt compelled to participate. Twenty-six stories below, about a dozen of his colleagues and friends had gathered to cheer him on — meaning he couldn’‍t chicken out.

Mr. Mackey, 43, of Brighton Heights said these friends have proved to be an important support network, which is the basis of recovery. “They used to hand me beers. Now they hand me Pepsis,” he said.

Courtney Keister, whose brother Tyler died of an overdose when he was 24, said she and her grandfather came from Delaware to participate because they want to fight the stigmas surrounding addiction. Ms. Keister, 29, and her grandfather Wayne White, 73, wore matching fluorescent green T-shirts advertising an organization they founded in Tyler’‍s memory that works to pass legislation and help those in recovery.

The event was initially scheduled for June 25 but was postponed after the city notified the organization that it needed a temporary occupancy permit.

“The Latin root of the word rappel is ‘to summon,’ ” Mr. Mendell said. “That’s what we’re doing. We are urgently summoning communities … to raise awareness and fundraise to prevent and treat this disease and to end the shame.”

Mr. Mendell, 57, feels very strongly about eliminating the shame associated with the disease. His oldest son, Brian, committed suicide at age 25 after battling addiction. Since then, Mr. Mendell said, he has dedicated himself to helping other families whose lives have been similarly “shattered” by addiction.

He said the key is getting people to talk about addiction the same way they do about cancer and diabetes, rather than treating it as an unspeakable societal ill.

Stephanie McFeeters: smcfeeters@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @mcfeeters.


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