Andrew McMorris Foundation to hold annual gala Friday

In the dark days that followed the September 2018 drunk driving crash that killed 12-year-old Andrew McMorris, his family vowed to turn their grief into action and keep his legacy alive.

Four years later, they continue to make strides in both advocacy work and community service through what have become annual Andrew McMorris Foundation events, including the “Light It Up Red” gala set for Friday, Sept. 30, at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead.

This year’s event will commemorate what would have been Andrew’s 16th birthday and is intentionally being held on the anniversary of the crash that claimed his life. “Each year, we do it on the day of the crash to try and make the worst day of our lives into something meaningful,” his mother, Alisa McMorris, explained.

Ms. McMorris, her husband, John, and their daughter, Arianna, have channeled Andrew’s fun-loving spirit into each element of the event, which will feature non-alcoholic Mingle Mocktails, a farm-to-table menu by Filomena and music by Decadia.

Carter Rubin, a close friend of Andrew’s who won Season 19 of NBC’s “The Voice” will also perform, along with Mateo Lizcano, who recently appeared in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway, and students from the musical theater program at Rider University, where Arianna is a junior.

In honor of Andrew’s milestone birthday, the family has focused their efforts on educating teen drivers via high school assemblies and driver’s ed classes that warn about the dangers of drunk, drugged and distracted driving.

They’ve continued to partner with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office on a “Choices and Consequences” initiative that’s typically presented to high school students ahead of the busy prom and graduation season. 

In addition to sharing their story with students, the McMorrises offer tips to teenagers about decision making.

“There’s a bittersweet piece of going into a classroom and staring at 16- and 17-year-olds, because that’s what Andrew should look like,” Ms. McMorris said.

“I don’t want to traumatize children,” she said, “but I do want them to be affected enough so that when the tough choice comes — and there are very tough choices — that they’re able to make the right decision.”

Andrew McMorris. (Courtesy photo)

Several honorees will be celebrated at Friday’s gala, including Brendan Ahern, former chief of the Vehicular Crimes Bureau of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. Mr. Ahern helped prosecute and ultimately convict Thomas Murphy, the driver in the crash, in 2019. “He’s seen so much tragedy as a prosecutor and in his life and wants to make a difference so it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Ms. McMorris said.

Boy Scout volunteers Dot Young and Kathryn Yakaboski, whose son and husband were hiking with the Boy Scout troop on the day of the crash, will also be recognized for their tireless volunteer efforts.

In addition, the foundation will honor Louis Parrinello, principal at Wading River Elementary, who was described by John McMorris as an “Energizer bunny” who volunteers at every event with enthusiasm and a positive spirit.

“He tries in every step of the way to honor Andrew in some small way and that’s been a blessing,” Ms. McMorris said.

One way the educator memorializes Andrew is by hanging one of his paintings on the wall of his office. “It’s a painting of a sunset with two birds, a little fence at the beach and lots of different colors,” Mr. Parrinello explained in an interview late last week. “It’s a reminder of what a masterful and incredible young man [Andrew] was.”

Some of Mr. Parrinello’s most treasured memories as an administrator derive from when Andrew was a student at the elementary school, frequently bringing his ukulele to school and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” over the school’s intercom system and even starting impromptu dance and singalongs in line during dismissal.

“When you have people like Andrew that are lost to unconscionable tragedy, you want to help the family and the cause so no other family has to endure what the McMorrises have had to endure,” Mr. Parrinello said. “This is what we’re here for; to help one another.” 

The relationship with Andrew’s teachers and principals over the years have also helped his family heal. In fifth grade, students were given an assignment to write letters to themselves in the future. Mr. Parrinello uncovered Andrew’s — which referenced how fun the school year was, how much he loved his teacher and principal and, in true tween spirit, the latest iPhone model — at the school and made sure his parents got it.

“It’s like discovering something new about Andrew,” Ms. McMorris said. “It’s such a gift to be able to glimpse into his thinking.”

The Andrew McMorris Foundation was established in 2019, just six months after Andrew was killed and three other Scouts were injured as they hiked along the shoulder of a Manorville road.

Funds raised during the gala will help the foundation distribute scholarships, “Scouterships” and grants for young people across Long Island, as well as support ongoing  advocacy to stop drunk driving.

In June, the foundation awarded 42 scholarships to graduating high school seniors, five “AeroCamp” grants to aspiring young pilots, three Eagle Scout grants and two Middle School Spirit Awards totaling over $26,000. “We’d like to go national this year and open it up to other states so Andrew’s message and our advocacy work reaches other teenagers,” Ms. McMorris said.

Tickets are selling quickly and donations can also be made online at AndrewMcMorrisFoundation.org.