The Butterfly Bus, dedicated to the memory — and smile — of Michael Hubbard after it arrived at First Baptist Church Saturday afternoon. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Michael Hubbard was a kid with an easy smile and an infectious laugh. The tragedy of a horrific injury that robbed him of his his youth and eventually his life didn’t change his disposition — and he kept smiling and laughing through everything he endured, right to the end.

So when Michael’s mom Nancy Reyer offered to fund the refurbishment of a mini-bus donated by First Baptist Church of Riverhead to the Butterfly Effect Project, the group’s founder and executive director Tijuana Fulford knew right away how the bus should honor Michael’s memory, his mother’s love, and the smile that captivated the Riverhead community as he struggled for eight years to recover from life-threatening burns and brain injury.

The 20-seat mini-bus arrived at First Baptist Church in Riverhead Saturday afternoon bearing images of Michael Hubbard’s smiling face and a special message: “MICHAEL’S SMILE – Live Each Day Making Memories WITH A SMILE! In Memory of Michael Hubbard.”

The crowd assembled for the “bus reveal” included, besides Fulford, Reyer and members of Reyer’s family, First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Charles Coverdale, Assistant Pastor Cynthia Liggon, church trustees, Butterfly Effect Project board members and some of the people directly responsible for making the Butterfly Bus “road-ready.”

As the bus, carrying a contingent of “butterflies” dressed in bright pink BEP t-shirts, pulled around to the front of the church, applause broke out, punctuated by cries of “That’s beautiful!” “Wow!” and “Oh my goodness!”

A shiny new coat of white paint provides the canvas for the words and images that now adorn the bus along with the Butterfly Effect’s logo, brightly colored butterfly art and message, “Empowering the Community One Girl at a Time.”

Nancy Reyer poses with members of the Butterfly Effect Project and the Butterfly Bus outside First Baptist Church Saturday. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The Butterfly Effect Project was founded by Fulford a decade ago to provide young girls with opportunities for outings, activities and mentorship they might not otherwise have. It has been a personal mission for Fulford, a Riverhead native who had a challenging childhood.

“I had a rough background,” she told RiverheadLOCAL in a 2014 interview. “My dad was addicted to crack cocaine. It was hard. We’d wake up sometimes and we didn’t have anything to eat, no electricity. All we had was each other.” She was one of six children. She began working in her early teens and held down three jobs to help her mother make ends meet.

The mentorship of a woman she was paired in a mentorship program at Pulaski Street school changed her life. Justine Wells of Aquebogue, was the town historian at the time. “I was 10, and Justine was in her 50s or 60s,” Fulford said in 2014. “I was thinking, ‘Great, I got the old white lady.’ Well, that old white lady literally saved my life.”

Wells’ role in the child’s life inspired Fulford to start the Butterfly Effect Project in the hope of inspiring and mentoring young girls the way Wells inspired and mentored her. With the aid of three friends and colleagues, she launched the Butterfly Effect. “We had no money, no place to meet, nothing but an idea,” Fulford recalled.

The group incorporated, gained tax-exempt status and grew — exponentially, from eight girls at the start to hundreds today, dispersed in chapters across the county.

Four years after it was launched, BEP had a home at First Baptist Church, providing a place to meet and work. One thing the Butterfly Effect Project project still needed was a vehicle to transport the group’s members to meetings, various activities and events. Many of the girls otherwise have no way to get there, so BEP relies on Fulford, staff members and volunteers using their personal vehicles to provide transportation.

When First Baptist Church replaced a church bus, Coverdale had the idea to donate its surplus bus to the group. He brought the idea to the church trustees, who readily agreed, Coverdale said yesterday.

Nancy Reyer reacts to the Butterfly Bus, adorned with images of her late son, and his childhood artwork and poetry Saturday at First Baptist Church of Riverhead, surrounded by Pastor Charles Coverdale, family and friends look on. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A tearful Nancy Reyer recalled showing Fulford photos of her son before the May 28, 2011 injury that, at age 14, put him in the hospital for the rest of his life. She shared memories and some of the drawings, poems and notes Michael proudly presented to his mother — the treasured keepsakes mothers hold dear that took on special meaning for Reyer after the accident.

Michael and his cousin Kris were helping set up a backyard party that Memorial Day weekend at the Riverhead home of his aunt, Fran Reyer. They were lighting citronella “Fireburner” pots that his aunt had purchased at Bed Bath & Beyond on Route 58. Kris attempted to refill one of the ceramic containers with the pourable “gel fuel” sold with the “Fireburner” pots.

The gel fuel was ethanol fuel — similar to the fuel in Sterno cups commonly used to keep food warm at parties. There’s no wick. The fuel itself ignites. It’s very clean-burning and it’s very hard to tell whether it’s lit. When gel fuel is poured on a pot that’s lit or still hot, flames erupt and burning fuel is splattered — up to several feet away from the container.

That’s what happened that evening in the Reyer backyard. It happened to at least 86 people in the U.S. in the time between the first sale of “Fireburners” in 2010 and when the last of them were recalled in the months following Michael’s 2011 accident. Many of those victims, like Michael, were critically injured and at least one person had died — before the gel fuel explosion left Michael with third-degree burns over 40% of his body. A New York State appeals court in 2018 ruled the “Fireburners” product was dangerous and defectively designed, holding the retailer liable for Michael’s injuries.

Nine days after the accident, as Michael lay in the intensive care burn unit at Stony Brook University Hospital, the severe burns he’d suffered caused his organs to begin shutting down. He went into cardiac arrest. Doctors revived him, but his brain was deprived of oxygen for the 13 minutes during which his heart wasn’t beating. He suffered irreversible brain injury because of it and would never walk or talk again.

Michael Hubbard at Peconic Bay Medical Center Skilled Nursing Facility in December 2017.
File photo: Denise Civiletti

Michael, confined to a wheelchair, lived through eight years of anguish and suffering that included multiple skin graft surgeries and nourishment through a feeding tube.

But his face was always lit up by a broad, beautiful smile and his laughter echoed in the halls of Peconic Bay Medical Center’s Skilled Nursing Facility, his home for the last six years of his life.

MORE COVERAGE: Eight years after an exploding ‘gel candle’ severely burned 14-year-old Michael Hubbard, his family prepares to say goodbye

His mom was always at his side — and every minute not spent providing care for her son was an opportunity for all kinds of antics to entertain him.

“I’m always a clown. I will always be a clown,” Reyer told the group gathered outside First Baptist Church for the bus reveal yesterday. She always loved to make people laugh and smile, especially her only child.

Yesterday, Reyer turned to the butterflies standing beside the new bus before her. “No matter what life brings to you, young children, if you smile, somebody’s gonna smile back at you,” Reyer told the girls, smiling through her own tears. “If we can all just smile, I think the world will be a better place,” she said.

“God bless all of you, the Butterfly Effect Project, for keeping Michael’s memory alive,” Reyer said.

The new bus is “a gift that will touch many lives,” Fulford said.

“Thank you so much, Nancy, for allowing Michael to be a part of our life and the generations of butterflies that he’s going to touch,” she said.

“I know you often think that Michael’s smile may have been forgotten, but it will never be forgotten. We will hold it in every mile, in every laugh, in every chant, in every way, in every opportunity. We are grateful for this. We are grateful for you,” Fulford said. “Thank you a thousand times over.”

Fulford thanked First Baptist Church for the donated vehicle, and the people and companies that made the “Butterfly Bus” “road-ready,” including Reyer, Fisher Signs & Shirts, Checkmate Designs, Tolliver Touch and Anthony Palmore.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti

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