Remembering the El Faro Through Service

Deb Roberts and Mike Holland (courtesy Hollandstrong.org)

By MarEx 2016-12-20 21:50:05

Mike Holland, a 2012 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, was one of the 33 mariners lost in the sinking of the con/ro El Faro last fall. Over the course of the year since Mike's passing, his mother, Deb Roberts, has worked tirelessly to honor his legacy: she created a scholarship fund bearing his name and completed an advocacy project that she and Mike worked on together, convincing Maine’s legislature to extend student loan tax credits to seafarers who work out of state.

In recognition of her contributions to the maritime community and to the remembrance of the El Faro tragedy, Paul Doell, president of the American Maritime Officers (AMO), nominated Roberts for a rarely bestowed recognition from the United Seamen's Service – an honorary rosette for a "Friend of the Seafarers." 

“Deb Roberts embodies the courage, character, dignity and grace common to all El Faro families in response to a tragedy nobody in the U.S. maritime community will ever forget,” wrote the United Seamen's Service. “She channeled goodness through grief with special works in her son’s name and memory, demonstrating perseverance that reflects positively on the maritime community.” 

The HollandStrong Memorial Scholarship

In the days following the sinking of the El Faro, signs began to appear around the small town of Jay, Maine, bearing the words "Holland Strong." Roberts' Hollandstrong Memorial Scholarship takes its name from this spontaneous show of support, and its eligibility criteria reflect its focus on the community: graduates from three local high schools may apply for grants towards tuition for either a four-year engineering degree or a two-year mechanics’ program.

To date, the Hollandstrong scholarship has raised over $40,000 in tax-deductible donations, and the family has already decided on the first years' scholarship recipients: three of them are incoming students at Maine Maritime Academy, Mike's alma mater, and one will attend the University of Maine. 

The funding comes from a variety of sources, but one stands out for its connection to Mike. A group of his childhood friends have held a charitable ice-fishing derby since 2010; Mike was an avid fisherman and outdoorsman, and after his passing, the derby’s organizers asked Roberts if they could channel its proceeds into the Hollandstrong scholarship fund. She agreed, and the first derby dedicated to Mike’s memory raised $15,000, with more than 1,000 participants. The second derby is scheduled for early next year.

"People were reaching out to me to see if we needed donations – there was just a tremendous amount of support. I just never realized the number of people that Mike reached in his lifetime, the circle he knew and the people that loved him," Roberts said. 

Student loan tax credits for mariners

Recent graduates of Maine's colleges can write student loan payments of $4,000 or more off of their state income taxes each year, as long as they reside and work in Maine. But Maine's mariners are rarely eligible, as most have to travel elsewhere to crew up; there are few maritime employers in the state.

Before Mike's death, he and Roberts had been advocating for a change allowing mariners to claim the credit, even if they work in Florida or Massachusetts. Roberts had convinced a state senator to introduce a bill to make this adjustment, and Mike was helping her to gather signatures for a petition. While the legislature did not enact the bill that year, Deb returned in 2016 and succeeded – completing the project her son helped begin. 

"I made a promise to Mike that I was going to complete this effort," Roberts said. "The scholarship is wonderful, but it came after his passing. The tax credit is something he was involved in and it is the one thing that I am most proud of. I’m sure he would be proud of it too."

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.