Standing against the epidemic11/17/2016 01:24PM ● By J. Chambless
Luis Tovar (left) and Andy Rumford of Kacie's Cause at the First Baptist Church in Kennett Square, which hosts weekly parent support meetings.
By John Chambless
Every Thursday evening, in a small room at the First Baptist Church in Kennett Square, parents pour out their bottomless grief and get boundless support in return.
The parent support group is part of Kacie's Cause, which began immediately after the 2013 heroin overdose death of Kacie Erin Rumford. Kacie's father, Andy Rumford, has thrown himself into running a drug overdose awareness campaign that has spread Kacie's name far and wide. There are local chapters of the group in Parkesburg, Honey Brook, Oxford and Kennett Square, and support groups for parents in both Honey Brook and Kennett Square. For Rumford, it's pretty much a 24-hour-a-day job.
“I was sitting at work, and I got a text from this lady who said, 'Andy, my son died this morning from a heroin overdose. What am I going to do?'” Rumford said during an interview.
For Rumford and his friend Luis, making the non-profit Kacie's Cause work is both emotionally draining and spiritually rewarding. Rumford said he escapes the burden of so much incoming sadness by working with the vintage cars he has always loved. “That's what keeps me sane,” he said. “Although I still cry every day. Every single day.”
Luis got involved with Kacie's Cause three and a half years ago, after a family member revealed a heroin dependency. Blindsided, Luis found Rumford's organization and he has been a vital part ever since. “So long as the individual seeks recovery, we should continue to love and support them as they may be one of the lucky ones,” Luis said. His family member has been in long-term recovery and has landed a good job. “But I know this is a journey with possible bends and twists along the way. It's part of healing for me, to get involved with service, with helping others.”
Much has been accomplished since Kacie's death, and Rumford couldn't begin to count the thousands of people who have contacted him, come to a meeting, supported the cause or used the group's website as a clearinghouse for services. Kacie's Cause is part of about 25 community events each year. But in 2013, when his anguish was still raw, he had trouble making anyone listen.
“When I got on board with Andy, we started planning town halls,” Luis said. “Our first one was at Longwood Fire Company and we drew about 150 that time. The road to making a difference was challenging in that the youth needed to hear this message as much as their parents, and that was met with some resistance in school districts in the area, such as Avon Grove. We were told, 'There's no problems here.' They were concerned about their ratings as a school. Eventually Kennett, Octorara and Unionville high schools got on board in hosting town halls. Recently, there was an article published about a survey at Unionville that reported 40 percent of the student population has experimented with drugs.”
It’s not unusual for Rumford to know about someone dying or being hospitalized for an overdose, because he hears from families via social media, texts or phone calls. But that information is not usually shared with the media, so there are many people in Chester County who don't see a drug epidemic.
“If they don't see it,” Rumford said with a rueful smile, “then they aren't looking hard enough.”
Nationwide, statistics show that about 46 Americans die every day from prescription opioid overdoses. That's about two deaths every hour, or 17,000 people every year. About 8,200 people die every year from heroin overdoses. That's because the gateway drug to heroin is predominantly the prescription painkillers that fill every medicine cabinet in America. Young people sneak the forgotten pills, and when those run out, the cost of heroin is so low, it's the next step.
Rumford has endorsed the drug take-back boxes which are used to safely collect unused medications for disposal. The response has been staggering. At community events where the boxes are put out, collecting 300 pounds per day is not unusual, Rumford said.
The introduction of the drug Narcan, which can immediately reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, means that every first responder can prevent a death, Rumford said. The drug is also sold at drug stores, and can be covered by insurance, so parents can have a stock on hand. But teens have adapted. Emergency responders have reported that there are Narcan parties where one person stays straight to administer the life-saving treatments after everyone else gets high.
Nearby Philadelphia and Wilmington are major drug distribution hubs, with some of the purest heroin in the nation, Luis said, and there are small-time dealers ready to supply drugs to buyers in every community in Chester County. And the consequences are getting more severe. In late summer, there were 29 overdoses in two days in Camden, N.J., when heroin in packages marked with a Batman logo proved too strong. In Ohio, a drug routed through China and Canada has proven to be 10 times stronger than elephant tranquilizers, recently causing more than 60 overdose deaths in one day. Even marijuana can be laced with drugs or poisons that can kill.
There is a tangle of issues surrounding addiction – frustrated parents kick out addicts, who turn to theft to support their habits, increasing overall crime rates. Homelessness can lead to needle sharing, disease, or prostitution. The vast majority of prisoners nationwide are jailed for drug offenses, or for crimes related to feeding a drug dependency. After someone has a record, employment is non-existent, or limited to minimum-wage jobs. “It's a multi-billion dollar impact on our budget,” Rumford said.
Rumford said survey results have shown that children start experimenting with drugs at the age of 12. The downward slide toward cheap and easily available heroin – which can be smoked, snorted or injected – is often the next step. By the time someone shows the first sign of a problem, it can be too late.
“There was a gentleman who came up to me at the booth we had at the Mushroom Festival,” Rumford said. “He has a 16-year-old son, and he was beside himself. 'What do I do? He's staying out late all of a sudden. Friends are dropping him off at the far end of our property, not coming up our driveway.' I told him, 'You need to go through your son's car, you need to go through his room. Something's drastically wrong.' Those are the kind of things we hear.”
When parents learn their child is using drugs or is in full-blown addiction, “They come in broken, scared, lonely,” Luis said. “They're ashamed. For the first time, they're putting it out there. But they're walking into a room full of people who get it. They think, 'I failed. What did I do wrong?' They internalize this, and it just consumes them.
“First-time parents can't talk because they're crying. But three months later, they are transformed,” Luis said. “Working for recovery is the hardest thing someone will ever do. The brain has been re-wired to chase the euphoria obtained in their initial use of drugs, so you have to overcome that. You can recover, if you replace the drug ritual with a ritual of healthy habits.”
The drug problem, and the effort to combat it, is so widespread that “at this point, within 10 or 15 miles, you can go to a parent support group every night of the week,” Luis said.
At the First Baptist Church, there were seven parents – one father and six mothers – all of whom have children who are struggling with recovery. Luis facilitated the meeting with warmth and patience. “We're all from different backgrounds, but we are all the same,” he told the group. “There are no judges here. There's no magic to this. You can take away what works for you.”
The guest speaker at the Sept. 15 meeting was Hillary Hess, a Kennett Square counselor and yoga instructor, trained in cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness, who gently led the group through a calming breathing exercise, and offered ways to identify and put aside fears that can crowd out positive thoughts.
“I can't imagine what your thoughts and feelings are, but I commend you all,” Hess told the group. “You are brave enough to come here and sift through everything and achieve some peace.”
Later, one husband and wife shared that their adult daughter, who has been in recovery for 10 months, was nervous about taking an upcoming flight without the numbing effect of drugs. Hess suggested several ways for the parents and daughter to calm her anxiety.
The husband said that men typically want to fix issues, but “sometimes you've got to just let it be,” he said. “You need a moment of clarity to get out of that first reaction. You don't want to think about the worst thing that could happen. I can convince myself that the vast majority of times, what's happening is not that bad.
“You have to back off and bring it down a few notches and let her learn,” he added. “That could lead to jail, court, or rehab. It's a long process of letting the person learn. I want to tell her, 'Recover now,' but she's more patient as an addict than I am as a parent.”
One woman came to the group for the first time. She works in the medical field, and is well aware of what drugs can do. Her son slid into heroin addiction after taking prescription pain pills for an injury at the age of 20. One night, she found him overdosed and unresponsive in the family's home. “For a long time, that was all I could see when I closed my eyes,” she told the group.
Her son had three years of sobriety, but fell back into addiction and is in rehab out of state. She was looking for suggestions on what to do once her son is released from his rehab program. Should she pay his car loan until he can get a job and replenish his bank account? Is that enabling or helping?
She was asked what she does to relax. “I just worry,” she said after thinking for a long moment. “That's what I do.”
She sees her son only a couple of times a year, “and every time we say goodbye, I think it could be the last time,” she said, her voice cracking. “I don't want to bury my kid. I truly don't want that to happen.”
Luis assured her, “I'm in awe of you. You've got it together. He's seeking help. You can't do better than that. He wants recovery. He's working hard. You are doing a great job.”
Having gone through the addiction/recovery process before, she said, “I feel sorry for drug addicts. I do. You have to call and call to get into a rehab program. If you didn't have family to help you, how could you manage that?”
Luis said he doesn't endorse letting someone hit rock bottom as part of their recovery. “Life has got to be just uncomfortable enough for you to want to change. And that's different for everybody,” he said. “Remember that this is a disease. It's a life-threatening disease. It's not a moral choice. Our kids are all good kids.”
The newcomer mother left the meeting with supportive comments, contacts and information about services she can access in the area. But she cautioned that the drug epidemic cannot be avoided.
“It's anywhere, and it's everywhere,” she said quietly. “You just never know what's behind someone's door.”
For more information and a list of resources, visit www.kaciescause.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected]