From teens to grandparents, a judge, a doctor and law enforcement along with Will County and Village officials, one after the other stood Thursday to talk about a tragedy of epidemic proportions. More than 450 people packed Lincoln-Way Central High School's Lee F. Rosenquist Auditorium for the Will County HELPS Symposium on Heroin.
In the aftermath of the tragic death of at least three teens in New Lenox in the past year, Mayor Tim Baldermann teamed up with village law enforcement officials to organize the Will County HELPS (Heroin Education Leads to Preventative Solutions) symposium, which featured an hour-long resource fair before the formal presentation.
This community forum is a response to what has become a "public health crisis," agreed the eight official speakers and many in the crowd who later shared personal perspectives, heart-wrenching testimonies and commentary. Obviously stirred by the stories of lives in crises, the number of comments and questions stretched the symposium for another hour. It lasted from 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
A duo of fathers from nearby Homer Glen, John Robertson, a retired Chicago police captain, and Brian Kirk, joined forces after their teen-age sons, both of whom attended Lockport Township High School, lost their lives due to heroin overdoses. Representatives from the fathers' outreach organization, which is called manned a table at the resource fair. They chatted casually or seriously, depending on the approaching individual, about the devastation and widespread availability of heroin.
Presentations and Conversations Revealed the Depth of the Problem
Chicago and Boston are the two "epicenters" in the nation for heroin, said Roberts, who spoke after Baldermann's introduction. Heroin recognizes no social class, race, creed or boundaries, he said. It's more than willing to accept all comers. It's no longer relegated to the dark, dangerous spots in major urban areas. It's at the shopping mall, the school parking lot and on the playground.
"These were just good, every day kids from suburbia" that caught up in heroin, said Roberts.
"We're trying to erase the stigma" associated with addictions, added Marie Anderson of HERO.
During the presentation, Roberts said the problem of heroin addiction has become "epidemic." The purpose for speaking out, he said, is to make people aware. "I know there's nothing that I can do to bring back my Billy. I'm here tonight to ask for your help. …because not enough people are talking about it."
When someone dies of a drug overdose, it's news. "But on average four, five and six kids a month are transferred to emergency rooms" in Will County, and no one hears about that. "We can never measure the harm that families are suffering because of this drug."
A Recovering Heroin Addict Shares Her Story
Identifying herself as Danielle H., currently of Libertyville, she shared how she got swept into the heroin addiction. It was easily available and her friends introduced her to it when she was a student at Wilmington High School. Within six months of using, she was arrested and her family bailed her out. Two days later, she was back using again. "From there it went downhill."
The addiction got so bad that she gave up everything, including relationships, food and even hygiene. All that mattered was getting the drug. "The drug changes you. It changes your brain," she said. After her second arrest, she was faced with imprisonment or the Will County Drug Court program. After witnessing the success that some of her fellow prisoners were experiencing in the program, she decided that "getting clean and sober" was something she wanted.
She was in jail for six months, "but that's what I needed. ...I've been clean and sober for 18 months," she boasted. Still, it's a battle. "I had to move away from my family and friends. …That's what you have to do; stay away from the familiar places."
Her speech ended with a standing ovation from the crowd.
Will County Health Department's Dr. Joe Troiani Details the Tell-Tale Signs of Heroin Addiction
Before Troiani presented information about the signs and symptoms of a heroin addict, he talked about his niece and her battle with heroin. He talked about his work with veterans after the Viet Nam war. People frequently are in denial, he said. That's because parents conjure images in their head of someone using dirty needles and looking for the dealer in dingy places.
It's not like that anymore. Kids can get the drugs in their own hometowns. It is still injected, but it's also snorted so there aren't any needle marks.
The tell-tale signs are weight loss, difficulty breathing and unexplained sleepiness. Each symptom is bad, he said, but it's the sleepiness that frequently escapes notice. "That's how kids die. Their friends think they're just falling asleep, but then they never wake up."
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