WILTON — Deb Roberts focuses on honoring the memory of her son, the late Michael Holland, to help her get through the painful days.

Holland, 25, of Wilton, was a mariner and among one of 33 crew members aboard the SS El Faro when it sank near Crooked Island, Bahamas, on Oct. 1, 2015, during Hurricane Joaquin.

Holland was the third assistant engineer on the cargo ship as it made its way toward Puerto Rico. When the trip began, Joaquin was considered a tropical storm.

It was Holland’s second run on the El Faro.

In his memory, Roberts is preparing for the first Hollandstrong Fishing Derby to be held on Round Pond in Livermore. It will benefit the Hollandstrong Memorial Scholarship.

“It is important to me to do something to keep Mike’s memory forever alive,” she said, as she sat at her dining room table at her new home. She and her husband, Robin Roberts, had lived in Jay until a month ago.

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Working in a school system, Roberts knows that scholarships are an annual reminder of other community members who have passed, she said. She is the business manager for SAD 52, which includes Turner, Leeds and Greene.

A 2008 Jay High School graduate and a 2012 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, Holland’s regular rotation was 70 days on and 70 days off working for TOTE Services, a ship management company based in Jacksonville, Fla. On his time off, he would return to the house in Wilton he had owned for two years.

His mother was first made aware of the lost contact with the El Faro when she was at work and received a call at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1, from a TOTE Services representative.

Contact had been lost at 7:30 a.m., she said.

Roberts was told the company would have a website up within an hour and she was given an 800 number for family to call in with any questions. The website was to be updated through the night.

She didn’t sleep that night. The following morning the company arranged a conference call and families were told TOTE would pay to have families who did not live in Florida to fly down. Roberts and her husband made the trip the next morning. Other family members joined them.

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The majority of the crew lived in Jacksonville, and the families gathered there were updated as the search was going on. 

A week later, the search was called off.

“Before we left Florida, we went to the beach to get as close as we could to Mike’s resting place,” Roberts said. “We brought home sand and water. Before we left we all wrote messages and put them in a bottle and we sent it out with the El Faro’s sister ship, SS El Yunque.”

El Faro which means “lighthouse” in Spanish, while El Yunque means “mountain,” Roberts said.

The crew of the El Yunque, with whom her son had also worked, performed a ceremony over the last known site of the El Faro, about 27 miles off the shore of Crooked Island, she said.

“Mike had been a mariner for three years,” his mother said. “He loved the sea and he loved working on engines. He always loved hands-on. He loved vocational classes. He was a hands-on learner.”

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The plan this year is to give one scholarship each to a graduating senior at Leavitt Area High School in Turner, Mt. Blue High School in Farmington and Spruce Mountain High School in Jay.

“I’d really like to award it to someone who played a varsity sport, preferably someone with leadership skills and served as the captain,” Roberts said.

It could be any sport, boys’ or girls’. The family’s decision on the scholarships will be based on a letter of recommendation and application information.

Holland played football and baseball in high school, and football in college.

“Through this tragedy I have formed many friendships with families of other crew members lost on the El Faro,” Roberts said. “The most special is Danielle Randolph’s mom, Laurie Bobillot.”

Randolph also was from Maine.

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Last year, Roberts and Holland worked with state Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, on a bill to expand the Educational Opportunities Act to allow mariners who live in Maine but work at sea to take advantage of the tax credit program. That bill passed in both the House and Senate but died on the Appropriations Committee table for lack of funding.

Roberts intends to continue her work to get the law passed in her son’s memory.

On Feb. 11, LD 1587, “An Act Regarding the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit,” sponsored by Saviello, was sent to the Taxation Committee for consideration.

The bill is important to Roberts for another reason.

The message in her son’s bottle that she gave to the crew of El Yunque was that she would see the bill through for him.

“I want to be clear this won’t benefit Mike, but it will benefit mariners like him who choose to live in Maine when they are not working at sea,” she said.

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Fishing derby to raise scholarship funds in mariner’s memory

The first Hollandstrong Fishing Derby will be held Saturday, Feb. 27, on Round Pond in Livermore. Proceeds will benefit the Hollandstrong Memorial Scholarship that Mike Holland’s mother, Deb Roberts, is setting up.

Holland was lost at sea aboard the El Faro last fall.

Holland’s friends Curtis Cloutier and Johnny Yankura, with help from Corinne Hutchinson and Roberts, are organizing the fundraising derby. As of Thursday, $14,000 had been raised through donations and proceeds from selling earrings, bracelets and T-shirts.

On the back of long-sleeved shirts is printed her son’s favorite saying when he wasn’t working: “Every day is a Saturday.” When he was working it was: “Every day is a Monday,” Roberts said.

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After the El Faro was reported missing, community members created the slogan “Hollandstrong” while Roberts was in Florida waiting for news of her son. The slogan was posted everywhere when she came home and remains prominent throughout the area.

“Hollandstrong” is printed down one sleeve of the fundraising shirts.

“I’d really like to thank community members for the overwhelming support from the time we heard the ship was missing. The outpouring of support and prayers meant a lot to us as we awaited word in Jacksonville,” Roberts said.

Local artists James Doyen and Bob Frost wrote and recorded a song in honor of her son titled “Hollandstrong.”

A CD of the song will be available for sale on the day of the fishing derby.

— Staff Writer Donna M. Perry


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