Thursday December 6, 2012

LEE -- Taylor Lee Meyer was an athletic, outgoing, pretty blonde girl who earned academic honors as a senior at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham.

As a young man, Chris Sullivan said he "did the right thing" while attending high school in North Attleborough, went on to Boston College and served as an NFL defensive lineman for the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Neither could have imagined the devastation that alcohol and drugs would have on their lives.

On Oct. 17, 2008, Meyer chose to drink to excess at a party at a former airport in Norfolk and attempted to walk home through the woods. The 17-year-old was found three days later, drowned in a swamp about a hundred yards from the party scene. An autopsy showed that her blood alcohol level was .13 when she died.

On Wednesday, Taylor’s mother, Kathi Sullivan, spoke with three rounds of audiences at Lee Middle and High School, with her daughter’s senior portrait standing behind her, set on top of a piano.

"You can tell by her cute little face that she was supposed to have a great life," Kathi Sullivan said. "She made a bad decision."

Last year, Kathi married Chris Sullivan, and calls the marriage both "wonderful" and "ironic."

After his successes, and even earning a ring as part of the Patriots’ 2001 season Super Bowl win, Chris Sullivan fell deep into depression through anxiety and sports injuries, and became addicted to painkillers, heroin and alcohol.

During a six-year period, Chris accrued five OUIs, totaled four cars and was in and out of 15 rehabilitation facilities. It wasn’t until later, with the support of family, friends and meeting Kathi, and a near-death experience, that he was able to turn himself around and confront his anxiety and "hold accountable" to his previous decisions by sharing his story with students, parents and community members in Massachusetts from time to time.

Kathi sticks by Chris’ side to support him and to share Taylor’s story, and it resonated in the Lee school’s auditorium.

At the end of the Sullivan’s afternoon presentation to middle schoolers, eighth-grader Sophia LaFrazia stood up and quick-stepped over to Kathi Sullivan to give her a hug, as many of her peers were holding each other or sniffling back tears in their seats. Later, both Chris and Kathi stuck around to offer hugs, photos and autographs to the throngs of middle schoolers who surrounded them.

LaFrazia and her friends Alexa Tallboy, Brianna Van Deusen and Regina Cook all nodded their heads and said "yes" when asked if the program was timely and appropriate for their class.

"It’s ridiculous what’s out there," said Cook, alluding to the fact that students her age have access to drugs and alcohol.

"I just want to be able to go and hug all my friends and keep them safe," LaFrazia said.

The Sullivans were asked to speak at Lee Middle and High School after a group of physical education teachers heard them speak at a Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association MIAA summit earlier this year.

"They’re very real and what they talk about is real," said Jennifer Carlino, an elementary school gym teacher. "Also in the Berkshires, we’re surrounded by woods where partying happens all the time."

In addition to afternoon talks with middle and high school students, the Sullivans also gave a community presentation on Wednesday night.

Lee Principal Joseph Turmel said that the school works with Girls Inc. and Berkshire Violence Prevention to raise students’ awareness about risks and positive decision-making, but said that the Sullivans’ stories were particularly poignant.

"As an educator, a dad, a person and a principal, I don’t think there is a more powerful message to explain to kids what we adults and parents worry about," said Turmel.