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Will County Forum to Tackle Heroin Epidemic

'HERO HELPS' unites a grassroots organization with Will County in the face of increasing use of the drug and alarming overdose statistics.

Two fathers are turning their tragic losses into an effort to fight back against an epidemic that quickly spreading across Chicagoland.

On Friday, April 13, they’ll join with 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.

In the first seven weeks of 2012 alone, Will County reported eight heroin-related deaths. The victims ranged in age from 18 to 55.

“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 had 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, visit 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, visit the Will County website for information and public service announcements from Walsh, Glasgow, O’Neil and Roberts.

Naperville Forum

A special program to discuss the heroin problem will be held tonight at 7 p.m. at . The program will have representatives from the Naperville and Aurora Police Departments, social workers and state's attorneys. A panel will be included in the program and attendees can ask questions during a question and answer period.

The Sentinel April 05, 2012 at 04:16 PM
Well, hooray for them trying, at least. But they aren't going to make a dent in the heroin usage with talk or protests or "education". The reason I say this is because heroin has been around for SUCH a long time that everyone who can talk knows how dengerous and how rotten it is. Yet...tons of people still do it. The only way to make a dent in it is to stop the supply. Somehow. I wish I knew what to suggest but apparently even prison time for pushers and supplieres doesn't stop it. Guess we just have to have a "dead or alive" bounty on the pushers and suppliers. Thi is somewhat like the "take back the neighborhood" marches Pfleger is so fond of. He and the residents march and hold signs and shout they want their neighborhood back, free from gangs, yet 5 minutes after the march ends, it's back to normal gangbanging. Talking about heroin is a good try but I sincerely doubt it'll sink in tot he kids. I HOPE it does but...
Homer Glen Resident April 11, 2012 at 10:41 PM
To The Sentinel.... HERO is trying to raise awareness. I agree with you that heroin has been around for a long time, but look at the statistics -- heroin overdoses are on the rise! It has become an epidemic! The statistics are scary! HERO was started by 2 fathers who lost their teenage sons to heroin. They are fighting the war on heroin in an attempt to help others so that they do not feel the devastation that they have felt. The war on heroin is much more complex than people think. Yes, it may seem like a good idea to simply go after the suppliers, but that is not all that can be done. Drug programs are lacking funds from the government, schools need more education and the law should have harsher punishment for people that are caught with drugs. This is truly a compex issue that may never be completely stopped, but if HERO (and other organizations) can at least help raise awareness and have a voice, then just maybe, something will change. Heroin will never be gone, but why should we have to continue to bury our KIDS?
The Sentinel April 11, 2012 at 11:00 PM
Homer: I never said HERO couldn't accomplish its goal. What I alluded to was that education probably wasn't going to accomplish much seeing as how heroin has been around for a long time and practically everybody knows it's not only illegal but also can kill you, among other things. As long as there's a supply, there are going to be KIDS and adults using it. You kill a snake but chopping the head off. And I never said anything about "burying our KIDS". I'm as much against it as you are, maybe more, but I just don't see educating and talking to kids will accomplish a whole hell of a lot in reducing the number of child and young adult users. I hope I'm wrong. HERO may as well try what they plan to do. I'd love to see the government declare open season on drug pushers. Cops know who they are and they know where they are. Round 'em up and either put them in prison for 25 years, minimum. HERO should also be pushing (sorry, no pun intended) for HUGE minimum sentences for pushers and suppliers with no chance of parole because if they just talk and "educate", for many kids it's going to go in one ear and out the other. Sorry.

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