Parents And Others Concerned About Addiction Band Together To Share Their Stories
By KEN BYRON, Courant Staff Writer
March 23, 2008
As Leona Hay sat through the memorial service for her son, one thing kept going through her mind.
"I felt compelled to tell Shane's story," Hay said. "Pounding at the back of my brain was the question: 'What am I going to do with this?'"
Hay, of Bristol, spent three years watching her son turn into a drug addict. She thought things had turned around when he stayed clean for eight months, but then he relapsed and died of a heroin overdose in March 2006. He was 26 and is survived by two young children of his own.
Hay wanted to tell others about her experience to prevent them from going through the same nightmare. Hay searched but could not find an organization interested in hearing about Shane's death.
Then she got a call from Mary Marcuccio.
Marcuccio, of Southington, was just starting what would become a highly visible campaign to spread awareness about increasing heroin use among youth in Southington. And she needed people like Hay.
"My goal all along was to bring forward families who've lost children," Marcuccio said. "Who has more credentials to speak about this than they do?"
The vehicle for Marcuccio's campaign is a group she helped start last year, Parents 4 A Change. Its members include parents who have lost children to drugs and parents concerned about their young children.
Marcuccio said her group plans on seeking reforms to state laws to help families of drug addicts. One priority is a law requiring some addicts to enter and stay in rehabilitation programs, whether they want to or not. She said many of the laws her group is pursuing are already in place in Massachusetts.
Promoting possible treatments for addiction is another priority for Parents 4 A Change. Marcuccio said members recently visited a doctor in Massachusetts who is experimenting with a pill that is implanted in the body and slowly releases a drug that inhibits an addict's urge.
But a key part of Marcuccio's agenda is publicizing heroin use in suburbia.
For that she needed to get people like Hay and David Merrills of Farmington to talk about what they went through. Merrills' son, Andrew, died in 2002 from a heroin overdose after he injected the drug at a condo in Simsbury that police later described as an illicit drug store.
"We have an enormous problem," Merrills said. "People think that these drugs are only in Hartford and that they don't come out to leafy suburbs like Farmington."
Merrills had already done some public speaking about his son's death when he saw a newspaper article last year about Marcuccio and Parents 4 A Change. Interested in what she was doing, he asked to meet her.
"I said to her, 'How can I help? All I have is a story to tell,'" Merrills said.
Marcuccio hopes people like Hay and Merrills will show that the death of a child to drug abuse can happen to anyone and break down the stereotype of drug users.
"Addicts are viewed as bad, and young addicts are seen as the products of bad parenting," Marcuccio said. "I want to get people to realize that these kids are often smart and come from upper middle-class families that pay taxes, live in nice homes and have raised their children right. Too many people don't understand that."
Marcuccio is reluctant to discuss what prompted her to start Parents 4 A Change except to say that it is related to her experience with a family member's drug problem. But she has not lost a child to a drug overdose, and that makes it difficult to ask someone who has to talk about it.
"I was nervous about doing it, for reasons that still make me nervous," Marcuccio said. "I don't feel qualified to ask them because unless you've been there, you can't really understand it. Am I qualified? I think that I have an interest and that I'm morally qualified. But I'm afraid that the person will say, 'Who are you to ask?'"
But the people Marcuccio has recruited say they are grateful for what she has given them. They say Parents 4 A Change is essential to them as a support group and as a place to network with others who have been through what they have. They also have welcomed the opportunity to speak about their losses.
"By having parents come forward together, we are saying addiction is not a dirty little secret," said Marilyn Babiarz, of Southington. "We're standing up and saying, 'No, it's not our fault. This is society's problem, it is part of the world we're raising our kids in, so let's deal with it.'"
Babiarz was confronted with the problem of drug abuse when she and her husband took in a young man who was a friend of their daughter. Mark Gilbert could not live with his parents because of his drug use and other issues. He moved into the Babiarzes' home and essentially became part of their family.
The Babiarzes struggled to help him kick the habit. He died last year from a heroin overdose, after being clean for six months.
Babiarz and others say that by forming a group that has relentlessly publicized the problem of drug abuse and lobbied local officials to pay attention, Marcuccio has done something they could not do.
"I don't want anyone to go through what I did," said David Dubois, of Southington. His daughter, Alisha, died in January 2007 from a heroin overdose, shortly before she was to start an outpatient rehabilitation program.
"I want to do something in Alisha's memory," Dubois said. "But I couldn't do this by myself. With Parents 4 A Change, I have a perfect place to heal and be with a group that can get a lot done."
Marcuccio and her group have become among the most visible and vocal people in Southington demanding that the town pay attention to what they describe as an epidemic of drug use in town. They are particularly concerned about opiates such as prescription painkillers and heroin. In the year since Marcuccio got started, she has spoken at town government meetings and organized forums where Hay and others also have spoken about their losses.
Superintendent of Schools Joseph Erardi was in his position just a few weeks in October when he hosted a forum on drug use issues that came about in large part because of pressure from Marcuccio and others. Erardi said Marcuccio introduced herself the night he was appointed. He has met with her numerous times since then and credits her for pressing the issue.
"I don't think I've ever worked with someone who had the kind of passion for an issue that Mary has," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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