Two Homer Glen fathers are turning their tragic losses into an effort to fight back against a heroin epidemic that's quickly spreading across the Chicago suburbs.
On Friday, April 13, they’ll join a Will County initiative to spread awareness of the growing heroin problem during a daylong event at in Romeoville.
The HERO HELPS event will feature expert guest speakers in the fields of law enforcement, addiction treatment, and education and prevention. The day will culminate in a youth rally featuring area bands and young people who will speak out about their own experiences with the increasingly deadly drug.
Chief Kevin Shaughnessy attended the rally last year in Homer Glen.
In the first seven weeks of 2012 alone, Will County reported eight heroin-related deaths. The victims ranged in age from 18 to 55. There have been multiple arrests in New Lenox in which police found heroin during traffic stops this year.
“What we’re finding is that a lot of people are using heroin instead of pain medications because it’s cheaper,” said Anastasia Tuskey, Will County communications director.
"Drug of choice"
Despite a 30-year career in law enforcement, retired Chicago Police Capt. John Roberts said he didn’t realize how serious the heroin epidemic was until he lost his son to an overdose.
Billy Roberts, 19, died on Sept. 19, 2009, leaving his parents and siblings devastated.
“[We were] shocked, stunned, you can imagine,” John Roberts said of his reaction to the loss.
The tragedy turned into a fight against heroin after a visit from another Homer Glen dad.
“A guy came to our door and said, ‘My name is Brian Kirk and I lost my son the same way,'” Roberts said. Kirk’s son, Matthew, also died of an overdose around the time Roberts lost his son. Both teens attended Lockport Township High School.
Instead of wallowing in their grief, the two dads looked for answers.
“We decided to try to figure out what happened to our sons,” Roberts said. In 2010, they formed the HERO (Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization) Foundation after learning that the problem was far from isolated to their sons.
“What I’ve seen is truly frightening,” Roberts said. “With all that I know about drugs, I was shocked when I found out. It’s everywhere … .”
Seeking a solution
More and more suburban teens are traveling the Eisenhower Expressway—dubbed the “heroin highway”—to Chicago’s west side to buy the drug, which has increased in purity in recent years.
“It’s been so refined now that kids can smoke it in a pipe or they can snort it,” removing the stigma associated with shooting up, Tuskey said. It’s also relatively cheap compared with other drugs.
Last year, the HERO Foundation held a march and rally in Homer Glen to raise awareness of the increasingly widespread problem.
Still a policeman at heart, Roberts said it was his nature to tackle the problem head on.
“We don’t run away from problems,” he said. “We run to problems and try to solve them.”
The HERO Foundation’s efforts to solve the heroin problem in suburban Chicago attracted the attention of Will County Executive Larry Walsh, who made a big promise at an April 2011 rally in Homer Glen.
“He stood up and he made a pledge to them that Will County was going to do something about this problem,” Tuskey said.
“I always tease him about a politician on a stage who made a promise and kept it,” joked Roberts. “Larry gave the marching orders … if we did it for H1N1, by God, the numbers of infection and deaths are far greater [from heroin].”
Walsh launched the Will County HELPS (Heroin Education Leads to Preventative Solutions) campaign, working with officials including Coroner Pat O’Neil and State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow to spread awareness and education on the epidemic.
The HERO HELPS event was born of that effort.
"It only takes once"
Roberts said the fight against heroin won’t stop with rallies and public speakers. An educational initiative is in the works to combat the problem where it’s hitting the hardest: Will County schools.
Roberts said to expect a big announcement from the Robert Crown Centers for Health Education at the April 13 community event.
Thanks to a $340,000 grant from the Reed Hruby Foundation, Robert Crown is launching an initiative to work to educate youths to stop the growing trend of heroin use. The foundation is named after a Burr Ridge man who succumbed to a heroin overdose in 2008.
Tuskey said plans are in the works to pilot the program in Will County public schools next fall, targeting high school students first, then filtering down to middle schoolers.
Roberts stressed the importance of education to prevent youths from trying the drug.
“I always tell kids, it only takes once with heroin” to get hooked, he said. “It’s pretty desperate circumstance for those who are addicted,” Roberts added, saying state funding cuts have meant waiting lists for those seeking treatment.
“[Treatment] is very costly. If you don’t have insurance, you have to wait to get in,” he said.
About HERO HELPS
The HERO HELPS forum kicks off at 9:30 a.m. Friday, April 13, at Lewis’ JFK Sports Center in Romeoville. A series of guest speakers is scheduled throughout the day, followed by a community forum and Q&A session from 12:30 to 2:15 p.m.
The youth rally, featuring music from Dead Town Revival and The Frantic, starts at 6 p.m.
For a complete list of speakers and scheduled events, go to www.herohelpsevent.org.
A free lunch will be provided to guests who register in advance on the website, Tuskey said.
For more on Will County HELPS, go to the Will County website for information and public service announcements from Walsh, Glasgow, O’Neil and Roberts.