BROCTON – Good memories will literally be running the streets of Brocton on August 2. And they will be in the form of hundreds of feet hitting the pavement in remembrance of Darren Manzella-Lapeira during the inaugural Darren Manzella-Lapeira Memorial Fun Walk and 5k Run.
“Aside from our goal of raising money for the Chautauqua Community Foundation’s Veterans’ Assistance Fund, we just want to celebrate the event as a good day to remember Darren for everything that he did,” states Melissa (Thies) Seavy, Darren’s first cousin and “first best friend.”
Known to his community, his huge circle of friends, and his loving family for his magnetic personality, stunning smile, and intuitive art of making people laugh, Manzella-Lapeira is known to the world as a courageous Army staff sergeant, and challenger and champion to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which plagued gay military men and women from being out in the open in uniform.
After joining the Army as a medic in 2002, Darren would see two tours of duty out of the Iraq War. In 2007, Darren bravely disclosed his sexual identity to CBS Correspondent Leslie Stahl during a nationally-televised interview, and was discharged in 2008 for violating DADT. Working with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Darren and his mother Nancy both shared their personal experiences before Congress which ultimately repealed DADT in 2011. Darren not only became the face of military men and women who lived in fear of disclosing their identity, but he would go on to become a much-needed voice on the other end of the phone for veterans in crisis as a Crisis Counselor for Canandaigua Veterans Crisis Call Center.
His young life was cut short in a tragic motor vehicle accident on Aug. 29, 2013. Since all aspects of military life were so important to him, his family sought out a way to raise funds for veterans in need while celebrating all of the things they cherish about Darren.
“His life revolved around the Army, especially the veterans that he counseled. It meant a lot to him to be able to help them. On the crisis line, he was the only one who was a veteran. All of the counselors were trained, but he was the only one that was a veteran,” stated Nancy.
Following the accident that claimed his life, left behind are: Darren’s newlywed husband, Javier, who is currently residing in Washington, D.C.; his mother and father, Nancy and Mike Manzella of Portland; his grandmother Fredora Manzella; brothers Andrew and Brandon and their families; a family of in-laws; as well as a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins; and an immeasurable number of friends, including the West Virginia Mountaineer Cheer Squad that he was a respected member of.
Standing in the receiving line at Darren’s wake, Seavy recalls that “almost everyone who introduced themselves to me described Darren as ‘one of their best friends.'”
Younger brother Andrew, remembering Darren explains, “The biggest thing I want people to remember is just what a generous person he was. If anyone needed anything in their lives, Darren was the first one to be there, and that’s a part of him that I hope no one ever forgets. The day of the race, I just want people to recall what a good person he was how he was always having fun, and that he was always the first one out of the crowd to make you laugh.”
As someone who changed the world for fellow service members; someone who saved lives in the combat zone; and then continued to save lives from the home front, Darren continued to remain a down to earth and fun loving person to everyone who knew him. Both graduates of the same class from Brocton Central School, Seavy’s favorite memories are highlighted by their traditional Christmas cookie baking sessions with their grandmother, as well as memorable family trips.
Andrew states “I don’t think I completely realized just what he had accomplished until later on. He did everything with such grace, and such ease, and it wasn’t until I started meeting friends of his, everyone had a story about him, about how generous he was to them. Not one person had anything negative to say about him, they would just remark what a helpful person he was. He never had to even try to be that way. He just enjoyed life, and enjoyed every day.”
Nancy also remarked on how effortless it was for Darren to express himself while reaching out to others.
“The first time I went to Washington, D.C. with him, there were reporters and politicians everywhere. He just got up and spoke, and I had never heard him speak like that before. He had such poise, and had just the right words, and had people genuinely listening to him. I was shocked. He never got flustered, and if someone criticized him, he just stopped and thought about what he wanted to say and just went ahead, being so eloquent, but witty. I was so proud of him. The things he did in his life touched so many people: from his work with SLDN on DADT; to crisis counseling, that we are just so proud of him. But most importantly to us, he was our son, our brother. All of us are just so proud of the person that he was.”
Their pride extends to their son-in-law, Javier, who finished his Ph.D. from the Manzella’s home in Portland, and aims to change the world himself by becoming involved in cutting edge cancer research. After marrying just a month before Darren’s passing, Javier gave to Darren what his family describes as the most happiness they’ve seen in him.
“He just was so happy and content and really settled with Javier,” explains Seavy.
Nancy added, “His work on DADT caused him a lot of stress. At least he passed away happy, and knew love. He was so content with Javier, and I’d never seen him happier.”
Darren’s entire family and circle of friends will receive runners on Aug. 2 beginning at 8 a.m. from the Brocton American Legion Post. At 9 a.m., an opening ceremony will kick off the 5k run, and walkers will follow at 9:15. At approximately 10:30, runners are expected to finish with a post-run ceremony, and entertainment and a chicken barbecue will follow from 11 to 1 p.m. A sizeable auction of items will take place at approximately 12:30 p.m. All details of the event, the Veterans Assistance Fund, and Darren’s life can be found at the race’s official website: www.manzella-lapeira-memorialrun.com. Through Darren’s fund, local veterans will benefit financially for immediate needs such as groceries, rent and help with utilities through the Chautauqua County Veterans Service Agency. Several fundraising initiatives prior to the Aug. 2 race have netted thousands of dollars in funds to date including a Pizza Hut Fundraiser Night, raffles and direct donations which can be left via the website.
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