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Foundation's ride/walk event about mental health, dedicated to late gay man
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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In honor of the late Michael James Dunlap, his family and friends created The Michael James Foundation to raise awareness for people with mental health issues.

The foundation will be hosting an inaugural bike ride/walk fundraiser Sunday, Sept. 8, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., at Montrose Fields, 601 W. Montrose Ave.

Dunlap died due to a drug overdose this past March 29 at age 30 after a long struggle with depression and addiction. He was born Sept. 12, 1988, in the Chicago suburb of Harvey and was raised in Tinley Park. Dunlap graduated from Marion Catholic High School and received his bachelor's degree in business from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

At the time of his death, Dunlap was a deli manager at Butera Grocery in Frankfort. He previously worked in retail management/sales at other grocery/deli and fine jewelry establishments.

Dunlap's mother, Carla Lazzara, explained that the genesis of this fundraising event stemmed from a conversation she and her daughter Jen Walters had with one of Dunlap's good friends, Rachael Rodgers, shortly after his death.

"Rachael asked us if we would be interested in doing this," said Lazzara. "We had given some thought at the time but we were still grieving and did not think we could put it together. We had established a fund in his name soon after his passing and his memorial service raised almost $2,000 to benefit To Write Love on Her Arm ( TWLOHA ), a non-profit that helps people struggling with depression, addiction and works to prevent suicide and self-injury.

"Her idea was to make it a celebration of Michael's life during his birthday month and raise money for the foundation we had formed to benefit those Michael would have helped. Rachael, Jen and I and another dear friend of Michael's, Vito DiPerte, began meeting once a month and networking to plan the event. He would be so proud of his name being a conduit to those who struggle with mental health."

The reason why they decided to make this a bike ride/walk event was due to Dunlap's passion for biking that began in his mid-20s and later turned into moments in his life where he was at peace.

Lazzara told Windy City Times that Dunlap biked from Chicago to Baltimore in the summer of 2017 to raise money for TWLOHA.

"When he hopped on his bike that summer he had only biked 10 miles at a time and truly had no real idea how to accomplish his endeavor," said Lazzara. "He had a tent, a back pack and a used Trek bike. He struggled to complete the ride, almost gave up once and met so many people. He was amazed by it and raised $2,000 to boot."

Lazzara said her son came out as a gay man to the family when he was a junior in college and was immediately accepted and loved by his entire family. She explained that his depression and addiction led to him being in treatment at Banyan Treatment Center ( Banyan ) in 2018. Lazzara said in addition to being in treatment, Dunlap began visiting and calling Center on Halsted ( the Center ) in 2015 when he lived in Chicago to get services and find community.

When asked why they chose Banyan, Lazzara said it was because of their services and approach in helping those in need.

"Banyan gave Michael a comfortable and non judgmental environment that he had never experienced before in treatment," said Lazzara. "They are also proactive in the community and believe we all have something to offer to those in need, even when in need ourselves."

"We are honored that they have chosen to contribute to the Banyan Cares Initiative," said Banyan Treatment Center Digital Marketing and Technology Director Alyssa Valentin. "All proceeds will go to our scholarship fund to help people who cannot afford addiction treatment."

Lazzara said they chose the Center because "it was a place where Michael felt safe and comfortable."

"We are grateful to the family for connecting with Center on Halsted in memory of Michael," said the Center CEO Modesto Tico Valle. "Michael found community at Center on Halsted and your participation in this event, as well as your in memoriam gifts, will help the Center support other members in our community through behavioral health services, HIV testing and other programs."

When asked what legacy the family wants to leave with The Michael James Foundation, Lazzara said, "Michael was a helper. He always knew what was best for his friends who were having a hard time. He could be in a terrible place himself but he was always calling or going to visit someone who needed a friend. Everyone was Michael's friend. Once he met you, you were a friend of his, period. He would want to continue to care for those suffering from mental health issues like he did."

As for what Lazzara wants to accomplish with the bike ride/walk, she said, "Mental health issues affect so many, are often hidden behind doors and within families. Those who suffer often have no outlet or knowledge of services available to them, nor the ability to pay for it. In the LGBTQ community, although so much has changed for them, people still suffer judgment and shame and our family wants to tell others that everyone deserves love, and to be loved. We are passionate about this in honor of Michael, his circle of friends and others; no matter whom they love or how they identify."

The Sept. 8 fundraising event will also feature lunch and games; all ages are welcome to attend.

See to make a donation. To RSVP for the bike ride/walk, visit .

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