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Chester County Press

Living for RJ

12/12/2017 01:30PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

RJ Zwaan loved two things above all else: Christmas, and making people laugh. 
From the time he had learned to walk, he took to life with the ferocity of someone who chooses not just to embrace it, but tackle it. As a boy, he played baseball and football. He learned to play the drums when he was 8, and taught himself to play the piano. He dreamed of becoming a Marine, so he joined the Young Marines, and spent his summers at Quantico and Paris Island at drill camps.
Soon after he entered Avon Grove High School as a member of the Class of 2009, he began using marijuana and alcohol. His mother, Jacki, saw that what began as experimentation had eventually spiraled into an addiction. His actions, once fueled by his enthusiasm, had become a byproduct of his drug and alcohol abuse. For Jacki, it was like witnessing an emotional freight train accelerating with no brakes.
She drove him five hours one winter day to a treatment center, only to return there two days later when a representative from the center told her that RJ wanted to go home.
RJ said that he didn't need treatment for alcohol.
Although he had passed military entrance examinations for the Army, RJ began to avoid the phone calls from the recruiters. In an attempt to get her son into court-ordered treatment, Jacki had him arrested in April 2008. He spent ten days in the juvenile detention center. She reached out constantly to Children & Youth Services locations throughout Chester County.
On the evening of June 30, 2008, he went out partying with his friends, mixing alcohol with pills that were later identified as Suboxone, a highly addictive narcotic that blocks the effects of opioid medication. “Subs,” as Suboxone is often called on the street, are more commonly abused for this purpose than to get high, although the medication can still produce a euphoric effect, as it still acts on the same opioid receptors in the brain and creates a flood of dopamine in the brain.
Suboxone can cause respiratory distress and death when taken in high doses, or when combined with other substances, especially alcohol.
When Jacki came down the stairs at her West Grove home the next morning, she saw the body of her son on the floor. RJ Zwaan was 17 years old.
There are photographs of him throughout the home that Smiro shares with her husband, Valdimir, and her daughter, now in her 20s. In the photos and for the rest of his mother's life, he will always be the 17-year-old boy with the smile.
Zwaan is one of seven members of the Avon Grove High School Class of 2009 to have died of a drug overdose, a time that many experts point to as the year that began an epidemic of drug abuse -- both  heroin and prescription medication -- that has rocked school hallways and homes all over Chester County.
The numbers are not lying. According to the 2013 Pennsylvania Youth Survey Report, the most common gateway substance used in Chester County was alcohol, with 41.8 percent of students responding that they had used alcohol at some point. Further, 16 percent said they used marijuana, followed by prescription drugs and stimulants -- all larger percentages than Pennsylvania as a whole.
Look through any newspaper's obituary columns and there likely will be at least one notice of a young person's passing. While they condense the person's young life into a sweet synopsis of happy times, they are also, on many occasions, devoid of the truth about what killed them, and so they serve as both the official document and escape route.
"Parents tell others that their son and daughter died in an automobile accident," Smiro said. "They're embarrassed to tell the truth of what really happened."
For the next six months, Jacki was this parent. She spoke to no one about RJ. Instead, she came home from work and stared at the walls of her home. She had given up listening to music while driving. The television and radio never went on.
"I was 38 years old, and I had just buried my son," she said from her home recently. "It didn't seem real. I could not wrap my head around what happened. Why didn't I know that they were taking pills? What could I have done?  What should I have known? Was I the bad parent? Why didn't I leave him in treatment?
"I was not prepared for this. I was prepared for him going to the service and leaving, not finding him on the floor."
One day, Smiro read a newspaper article about Andy Rumford, who began Kacie's Cause, a heroin addiction awareness organization, in the wake of his daughter Kacie's death on March 12, 2013 from a heroin overdose. Through its many volunteers, Kacie's Cause provides continuing education to students and adults through visits to schools and town meetings throughout Chester County. Smiro reached out to Rumford, who invited her to one of the group's local events. She also began to attend training presentations at the NOPE (Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education) Task Force and later became a parent support grief counselor. In 2014, together with other agencies, she helped to form NOPE's Chester County chapter, where she serves as its parent coordinator.
NOPE educates students in middle schools, high schools, and colleges about the consequences of drug consumption. A network of community leaders goes into Chester County’s schools to deliver personal presentations about their experiences to students and parents.  
In April, Smiro was one of four people who testified before the Pennsylvania Republican House Committee about issues facing addicts and families. At the top of their wish list was to rewrite drug enforcement laws to allow offenders to have opportunities to treat their disease, while also allowing them to re-engage with society once their sentences have finished.
"We really felt we conveyed all of the issues that needed to be conveyed, but legislation
moves very slowly," Smiro said. "We want house bills on the books that make drug laws less punitive. We want to remove laws that expel students who make mistakes with drugs, and instead increase support systems for these young people. We also want to increase support services at all schools.
"People are dying every day, and we felt we really needed to do something. It's not happening fast enough at the state level, and it's going to take years to change the laws that are very detrimental to our young people who are addicted to drugs." 
The laws, Smiro said, are only part of the problem. As her motivation to address these issues turned her private grief into a public one, she began to see more holes in the platform of how Chester County was taking on what had become a drug epidemic. There needed to be more conversation, more advocacy and more connections between agencies and people.
This past May, she officially launched Live4RJ, a grassroots, non-profit advocacy group whose mission is to create change through community-based solutions meant to assist all adolescents, young adults and veterans suffering from drug and alcohol addiction to live to their potential, leading a full, healthy life.
During its eight-month duration, Live4RJ has already hit the ground running. Smiro and her group of volunteers and board members have sponsored public forums, overdose awareness vigils, become a referral agency for those who wish to seek treatment for their loved ones, and opened the door for people who wish to become mentors and advocates.   
"Prevention, education, and treatment are necessary if we are to manifest positive changes in the community and ensure success in our youth that will allow them to become employable, productive members of society," Smiro said. "Live4RJ will be reach and empower all adolescents and young adults, with an emphasis on those struggling with addiction, and help to bridge the gap between those who are falling through the cracks, and those who are not reached by typical non-profit groups."
While schools play a crucial role in the development of young people, Smiro believes that as a whole, schools are a step behind in engaging in an honest and ongoing dialogue about drugs with their students.
Winden Rowe, MS, a Kennett Square-based counselor who also serves on the board of directors for Live4RJ, said that schools and families are the two greatest liabilities "in terms of acceptance of substance abuse as a crisis in the United States of America."
"Schools are content driven, and the funding dollars for proper counseling and accessibility and availability for mental health support is isolated mostly to education-based practice, meaning that they look at how children are performing academically as a benchmark for mental health," Rowe said.
"I think the dialogue needs to be changed, because I don't think we're talking about the truth, and the truth is that when you look at the adolescent population, they're up to experimenting and putting their toes in the water, and a lot of times that has to do with illicit substances. The 'War on Drugs' doesn't work. It's not dialogue based. It's punitive, and the punitive approach does not work."
The 307 Club in West Chester serves the local recovery community with a clean and safe environment, while providing hope and opportunities. As the Live4RJ mission continues to broaden its outreach in southern Chester County, it looks for a home to do it in. Smiro said that she wants to create a space where those in recovery can visit on a regular basis to work out together, enjoy a community dinner, and work with Live4RJ volunteers on fundraising events. It will also serve as a central location for private and public meetings.
"We are tired of losing people," Smiro said. "I am tired of hearing about the death of this person and that person. It comes down to finding the people who want the help. We need a place for them to come to, where we can help support them in their recovery. There are miracles in recovery. It is possible, and if they're willing to walk through the door, we will do everything we can to help." 
"Mental health is thought to be unrecoverable, but I believe the exact opposite," Rowe said. "Everyone is recoverable, and everyone has the capacity to grow through the trauma and adversity that we face. Jacki is one of those people. Post-traumatic growth doesn't mean that you won't continue to feel grief. There's a revisiting of that grief throughout one's lifespan, but that growth is an inclusion of all feelings that surround that trauma.
"Inclusion is peace, acceptance and forward movement. I think that's something that Jacki does beautifully. She expresses her sadness because of RJ's loss, but also experiences a joy in helping others, through the mission that she has made."
Christmas was RJ Zwaan's favorite holiday. Because he was born in December, it was a yearly ritual that the Christmas tree had to be decorated prior to his birthday. Since his death, his mother has made a pilgrimage to her son's gravesite, where she places a decorated tree, every year. This holiday season, for the first time since 2008, there will also be a decorated Christmas tree in the Smiro home.
"Everything has changed, and that's the hard part," she said. "You talk about traditions. Some traditions have to become new traditions."
To learn more about Live4RJ Chester County Drug Overdose Prevention, or to make a donation, visit, email [email protected], or call 484-727-8333.
The Chester County chapter of NOPE is holding additional training sessions for individuals and families who are willing to share their stories with others. To learn more about the NOPE Task Force Chester County chapter or to attend a meeting, visit, email [email protected], or call 484-639-7990.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].