From tragedy to triumph: CMU alumni lead nonprofit transforming mental health in northeast Michigan

As undergrads, trio sought to honor a lost friend

| Author: Jason Fielder | Media Contact: Jason Fielder

Central Michigan University alumni Gavin MacDonald BS ‘20, MS ’21, Nick Poli ‘20, and Kevin O’Brien ’20 are lifelong friends from Alpena, MI.

Three young men pose for a picture. Each has brown hair. The one on the left is wearing glasses and a plaid shirt. The one in the middle wears a green henley shirt, and the one on the right wears a navy blue long-sleeve shirt.
Pictured from left to right: Nick Poli, Kevin O'Brien, and Gavin MacDonald.

All three have full-time jobs in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area, but they team up to lead a growing nonprofit called The Sunset Project in their spare time.

It’s an organization committed to investing in the betterment of northeast Michigan through creative-based and mental health programs.

Honoring a friend

The non-profit was born out of a tragedy during the trio’s move-in weekend as freshmen in Fall 2016.

While taking part in their orientation campus tour, they received news that a good friend (former Alpena High classmate Sawyer Boyd) had taken his own life.

“That is a moment that will stick with me forever,” said O’Brien.

During their grieving process, Poli says MacDonald planted the seed for what would eventually become The Sunset Project.

A young man with brown hair and a mustache, wearing dark brown khakis and a white t-shirt, stands in front of a painted mural of a woman at the beach looking at the sun.
Nick Poli stands in front of a mural funded by The Sunset Project.

“Shortly after Sawyer’s passing, Gavin came into our dorm room and said, ‘There must be something we can do to turn this into something positive,’” Poli said.

None of them wanted others to experience their pain, so they began planning a path to support young people in need.

O’Brien and MacDonald decided to major in psychology.

“Sawyer’s death was a huge reason why I went into the mental health field,” said O’Brien, who is a Youth and Family Outpatient Therapist.

A short time later, they formed the idea for a nonprofit organization. After a few years of brainstorming the operation details, graduation from CMU and the COVID pandemic allowed them the time needed to implement their ideas.

A mission for mental health

The trio launched The Sunset Project in 2021. The organization has since developed three core programs to help people:

  • Focus45 is a community investment program focused on bettering northeast Michigan through developing, implementing, and supporting creative-based projects.
  • The Northeast Michigan Wellness Initiative (NEMWI) is a mental health-focused program that raises awareness, ends stigmas, and educates mental health through in-school programming and involvement in various community events.
  • The Sawyer J. Boyd Creatives Grant is a creative advancement opportunity for youth ages 16 to 23. It provides individuals with the purchase of goods and/or services to expand their creative passion, hobby, or career.

“Our first year, the grant was worth $1,000 and we gave out three,” MacDonald said. “Last year, the grant moved up to $2,000 and we awarded four. This year, so far, we have three more grants at $2,000 each. The goal is to (every year) increase the number of people that can get those grants and the dollar amount, too.”

A young man with brown hair and a mustache speaks behind a white podium with a group of people behind him on a couch. A sign over his shoulder reads Brighter Horizons Fundraising Event.
Gavin MacDonald speaks during a fundraising event.

MacDonald said one of the benefactors is a local photographer who took pictures on her cell phone because she didn’t have the resources to buy an expensive camera.

“We bought her a bunch of professional camera equipment and a high-grade digital camera and lens,” MacDonald said. “Now she runs her own photography business in northeast Michigan that’s growing and becoming really successful.”

Currently, MacDonald, Poli, and O’Brien are busy facilitating mental health programs in local high schools for Mental Health Awareness Month.

“We partnered with the National Alliance of Mental Health Grand Traverse and we facilitate ‘Ending the Silence,’ which is a nationally recognized evidence-based program,” MacDonald said.

A young man wearing a light-colored shirt stands behind a wooden podium on a stage, and two females are sitting in a chair behind him. A sign that says Ending the Silence is hanging in the background.
Kevin O'Brien speaks during an Ending the Silence presentation at Alpena High School.

Empowering change through CMU roots

In its three years, The Sunset Project has awarded nearly $20,000 in grants and helped implement mental health awareness initiatives and programs throughout the NE Michigan region.

MacDonald, Poli, and O’Brien believe the project would likely not exist without their time together at CMU.

A group of eight CMU students wearing CMU gear pose with football player Jesse Kroll in the middle outside of a football stadium at night.
Nick Poli (far left), Kevin O'Brien (second from left), and Gavin MacDonald (fourth from left) pose with CMU students and football player Jesse Kroll (center) after a game in 2016.

“It gave us all great educations to start the foundation of The Sunset Project,” MacDonald said. “CMU also created a positive environment for us to be curious and explore, and it was the glue that kept us all together throughout this process and still to this day.”

Out of tragedy, three friends created something that has changed lives and created new pathways.

“At CMU, we promise that students will learn to lead in life,” said CMU President Bob Davies. “That is exactly what Gavin MacDonald, Nick Poli, and Kevin O’Brien have done. Their passion and leadership have created something that will positively impact the lives of young people in the region they call home.”

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