The Sunset Project works to raise awareness of mental illness and nurture creativity

The Sunset Project is nurturing a growing community of young artists, supporting both creativity and mental health in rural northeast Michigan’s Ogemaw, Montmorency, Oscoda, Iosco, Presque Isle, Alcona and Alpena counties.

Gavin MacDonald
“Nothing like this has existed in northeast Michigan,” says one of its founders, Gavin MacDonald. “Typically, the rural community doesn't have resources like this, especially for young creatives and creative people.”

What is The Sunset Project: When a talented young Alpena photographer and artist took his life five years ago, his friends vowed to make a difference in his memory. A year ago, they made good on that promise with the launch of The Sunset Project, a nonprofit serving northeast Michigan by building a supportive community of creative young people, while also raising awareness of mental health issues among teens.

How does it work: The two pillars of The Sunset Project, creativity and mental health, may at times intersect or overlap in the organization’s three areas of operation: 

–  The Sawyer J. Boyd Creatives Grant: An annual competitive grant awarded to selected creative projects proposed by young people, ages 16-23. Entrants in that age group with passions or budding careers in film, photography, graphic design, art, fashion, woodworking, creative writing, music, or any other creative form are invited to apply for funding for their ideas. In addition to a cash award, the grant also helps connect applicants with professionals in their field of interest, to foster mentor-like relationships. Applications are open from late spring to mid-summer each year. 

FOCUS45: The Sunset Project sponsors or partners with other groups in creative-based contests and investment into creative scenes in northeast Michigan. Activities have included the FOCUS45 Photography Contest, sponsorship of a mural wall in the Alpena Downtown Development Authority’s Fresh Waves Mural program, partnerships with the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau's Fresh Takes Film Competition and sponsorship of the Thunder Bay International Film Festival.

The Northeast Michigan Wellness Initiative (NEMWI), a mental health awareness program, will be piloted this spring at Alpena High School. Using the National Alliance on Mental Illness program, “Ending the Silence,'' trained members of The Sunset Project team are bringing the nationally recognized evidence-based program to local students during class period. The goal is to bring the 55-minute program to every high school in the seven-county region.

What’s the backstory: “Five years ago, in August 2016, we lost a really close friend of ours (to suicide),” says MacDonald, who is co-founder of The Sunset Project along with Nick Poli and Kevin O’Brien. “We were in college at the time, freshly 18.”

Nick PoliWhile they were determined to do something to make a difference in memory of Sawyer Boyd, they were too young to know exactly what it was they wanted to accomplish. “But it was always in the back of our minds. And then with the pandemic we had … a little extra free time when the world shut down,” MacDonald says. “So, we spent a year developing our idea for The Sunset Project” and completing the steps necessary to become a 501(C)(3) organization.”

“So, basically this is a platform to help us elevate people that come from our northeast Michigan community,” MacDonald says, “highlighting their creative successes, helping fund their endeavors, and at the same time, operating a program that directly talks about mental health awareness.”

How’s it going: Since its launch in March 2022, The Sunset Project has:

— Awarded three $1,000 grants — one to a working musician in need of a new amplifier, one to a musician in need of computer upgrades for composition, and one to a young woman in foster care developing an app to better connect the foster care community.

From a recent grant award ceremony: From left to right, Griffin Saddler (board member), Gavin MacDonald (executive director), Amy Swinson (board member), Maddy Boyd (NEMWI program coordinator), Alison Hosinski (grant recipient), Nick Lasardi (grant recipient), Connor Caplis (grant recipient), Kevin O'Brien (NEMWI program director), Nick Poli (creative director). 

— Awarded more than $3,000 worth of prizes — including camera kits, gift cards, and others — in the first annual Focus45 photography project.

— Extended the reach of rural artists and their communities. “Our goal with the Fresh Waves (mural program),” Nick Poli says, “is to foster connections between the amazing street art that exists” in other areas of Michigan to bring some of those outside artists into the local Alpena community, get them involved into a program that they may not know exists. Applications for the 2023 Fresh Waves Mural Program are open through April 15.

— The Sunset Project staff is in the process of finishing training and tailoring the “Ending the Silence” program to include Sawyer Boyd's story. Boyd’s mother and sister are among the trained presenters. “So when (The Sunset Project presenters) present in class, not only do they have this evidence-based program that they are presenting, they have a personal connection and a personal story to mental illness and suicide that they'll be sharing,” MacDonald says,  “which we think is is a huge benefit because it allows people to really experience in the classroom what that real life personal connection and that heartbreak is really about in their own town.”

What’s next: “We have an incredibly generous and supportive community behind us in northeast Michigan,” MacDonald says.  “People find a lot to be connected to about this organization — whether you're a creative person or you're someone struggling with mental health, or both, you can find something that resonates with you in The Sunset Project.”

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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