A Love Song for Laura
Musician gives more than $700,000 in sister’s memory

When his sister Laura died after a lifetime of drug and alcohol addiction, pianist Brad Mersereau began to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to help addicts get and stay sober. He donates his money and time to heal the heartbreak and to keep alive the memory of his little sister.

She was the gregarious one, the bouncy one. Laura Mersereau—two and a half years younger than her more bookish and introspective brother—was full of life. And smiles. And making friends instantaneously, Brad Mersereau remembers.

But by the time his younger sister had reached her late teens, drugs and alcohol had sapped her of her gregariousness—her spirit.

“The sparkle went out of her eyes,” Brad Mersereau says. “Something left. And that saddened me.”

And some three decades after that, Laura Mersereau was gone.

It’s been six years since Laura died, at age 46, after a lifetime of alcohol and drug abuse. In essence, she drank herself to death, Brad Mersereau says. And it’s been a bit less than six years that her older brother—tears still welling in his eyes when he talks about his sister—has been on a mission. The mission: to honor the memory of his little sister by giving away money—lots and lots of money—to agencies that try to help people with alcohol and drug addictions.

In the last six years, Brad Mersereau—an unassuming musician and composer who inherited some money from his parents and now plays piano about two nights a week at the Benson Hotel’s London Grill—has given away, with his wife, more than $700,000. The money has gone entirely to local nonprofits that work with alcoholics and drug addicts.

The latest gift, Brad and Janet Mersereau’s largest single gift, was the more than $310,000 in stock they gave last spring to the Union Gospel Mission of Portland to help it construct a five-story building next to the mission’s current building on the corner of Northwest Third Avenue and West Burnside Street.

The mission’s new building will allow it to more than double the number of people it serves—from about 30 to about 75—in its LifeChange program. LifeChange is a long-term addiction treatment program in which participants live and work together as they help each other stay sober.

The Mersereaus made their donation in March, when Union Gospel Mission’s $7 million fundraising drive for the building had largely stalled a couple of million dollars short, says Kevin Campbell, the mission’s finance director.

“We were really a highly fatigued organization—not knowing how we were going to finish raising the funds,” Campbell says. “We were really out of ideas.”

The Mersereaus’ gift, for which Brad recommended that the mission seek matching contributions, came about the time the mission learned its project would be eligible for some funding through special government tax credits.

“Brad’s was another gift—a miracle really—that we could see clearly that God was doing something,” Campbell says. “Because we had no ideas—no way—really, to get to the finish line. It gave us new life.”

The mission’s fundraising drive is now complete. Construction on the building is scheduled to begin next month and be completed by late 2006, Campbell says.

‘It just felt right’

Brad Mersereau often makes contributions suggesting—but not requiring—that the organization match his contribution through other fundraising. “It makes me feel better if I’m part of a team that helps to raise funds for people who absolutely mean business about helping people who want to help themselves,” he says.

And he keeps track of the fundraising successes; so far, more than $500,000 of the Mersereaus’ contributions have been matched through other fundraising, he says. That means more than $1.2 million has been invested in helping addicts in his sister’s memory, he says.

He says he had been looking for a “big match opportunity” early last year when he read about the mission’s project. “I did research… but it just felt right,” he says.

Mersereau’s first large gift was even more directly related to his sister. In charge of his sister’s estate after she died in June 1999, Mersereau decided that the proceeds from the sale of her Northwest Portland house should be used to help other addicts. He gave the proceeds to the YWCA to create an endowment—called Laura’s House.

The Y uses interest from the endowment to help pay for programs for women trying to recover from addictions and, with Mersereau’s permission, has used part of the original donation to pay for an on-staff drug and alcohol counselor, says Adella Macdonald, executive director of the YWCA of Greater Portland.

“It seemed very logical and healing to me to do something like that,” Mersereau says of the YWCA gift. “I suppose it snowballed from there.”

Inheritance funds dreams

When Mersereau’s parents died in the early 1990s, he inherited a “very substantial” sum of money. His father was a stockbroker—and an alcoholic who stayed sober the last 26 years of his life, Mersereau says. “I’m extremely proud of him,” Mersereau says.

The inheritance gave Mersereau the freedom to pursue the full-time music career he had always wanted; he became a regular piano player at the Hotel Vintage Plaza downtown in the early 1990s, and started playing at the Benson’s London Grill a few years ago.

“I believe I’m an adequate piano player,” he says over breakfast one weekday morning at the London Grill. “But there are killer piano players in this town.”

The inheritance also meant that he and his wife would be donating a lot of money in Laura’s memory.

In addition to the Y donation, the Mersereaus have given a large contribution to the Hope House, an addiction treatment program formerly sponsored by a church in North Portland, and gave $140,000 to Central City Concern for a five-bedroom drug- and alcohol-free house, with an in-house counselor.

But the Mersereaus give more than money, says the Union Gospel Mission’s Campbell. Brad Mersereau often shows up at the mission’s “graduations” for treatment participants who successfully complete LifeChange.

“Just to see him, in little ways and everyday ways, trying to be a part of this, just really giving his heart to this… I wish there were a dozen Brad Mersereaus out there,” Campbell says.

“All I’m interested in (is supporting) the programs that are the best chance for addicts to get the help they so desperately need,” Mersereau says. “ I believe if you take energy, time and money—the sum will be more than the parts.”

Charity, music help healing

The YWCA’s Macdonald says she often sees people contributing money and time to causes that have touched their families.

“I think it’s human nature to, if we can, prevent other people from going through the same grief that we’ve gone through,” she says. “ I think it does our heart good, where our heart is really broken, to think we’ve done something positive in light of a great tragedy.”

Still, Macdonald says, the level of commitment from Brad and Janet Mersereau “is quite extraordinary.”

Brad Mersereau also has tried to remember his sister through his music. The year after Laura died, he released a jazz album called “Laura”—some of the songs he composed for her, others were jazz standards. He paid for some of the Portland region’s top jazz musicians to play on the album, and he played piano on a few of the songs.

Proceeds from the album went to the YWCA, he says.

Just last year, Mersereau released another album, called “Autumn Waltz,” the proceeds from it will go to the Union Gospel Mission.

Lives, letters leave a legacy

For most of her life, Mersereau says, his sister argued with him about whether she had an alcohol problem. But toward the end, six months before she died, she went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with him and acknowledged to the group that she was an alcoholic, Mersereau says.

“Her biggest gift to me, and herself, was going up in front of a group and admitting it,” he says.

Mersereau says part of the reason for his continual focus on his sister’s story is so others can hear it—and understand they can make better decisions. “They can change their lives,” he says. “That makes my sister’s life matter.”

And that focus—on affecting lives, one at a time—is reflected in Mersereau’s one request from the people helped by his donations.

He asks that at least one addiction treatment participant from each group he supports write a letter—with copies sent to him, sent to the agency and kept by the participant— explaining why they want to stay sober for the rest of their lives.

He asks for the letters so people can read them when they are challenged by their addictions. And remember why it’s worth it to stay sober.

He has 15 letters so far. Mersereau says. “My goal is to have 75 of those before I die.”

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