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Battling Addiction In Northern Illinois: One Step At A Time

The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office said it has used the opioid reversal drug Narcan more than a dozen times so far this year.

The County has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in the state. Northern Illinois residents recently gathered in Machesney Park for the annual Drug Overdose Awareness Walk.

Julie McCaslin was at the walk for her third year in remembrance of her son John Hill.

“Now, it’s a different life," she said. "There’s life before your child dies, and there’s life after. And it’s two different places.”

Hill died in 2015 of a heroin overdose – just days shy of his 36th birthday.

“He had overdosed twice before. Once, I found him, and once he overdosed in a parking lot and somebody found him. He lived out in the country where you wouldn’t think people would have that much access to heroin," she said, "but he did have someone that would drive it out there. He lived out in Leaf River. He loved to play the guitar and had three children.”

Credit Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ
Julie McCaslin carries a sign with names of individuals lost to the battle of addiction, including her son John Hill.

McCaslin said her son struggled with addiction for a decade. He was in and out of rehab, but she said he just couldn’t kick it.

“I think we need to start educating the younger children," she said, "and starting in like middle school and teaching them the dangers of opiates and pills. Because that’s usually what leads to the heroin, which is what happened with my son.”  

Children like Lorelai Barnes are fully aware of how her aunt died of an overdose. She was called to support her family right after the incident.

“My mom and dad go over there first and then they came home and said, ‘Grandma needs you right now. Aunt Pal just died,’” she said.

Barnes said the walk helps give a sense of peace.

“It means very important, like honoring our family who has been lost," she said.

A few rows ahead, the Schulz family is wearing matching T-shirts that say “Let us tend to the fire for a change.”

Credit Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ
The Schulz family wears shirts that say, "Let us tend to the fire for a change." It's to honor Dane Schulz, who the family said was a huge outdoorsman. He died of an overdose.

It’s in honor of Dane Schulz, who passed away at age 30 from an overdose last year. His family said he was a huge outdoorsman.

Dane’s father Rob Schulz said addiction is a battle that can prevent the person suffering from getting proper help.

“They have so much guilt and shame," he said, "because they know what they’re doing to their family and friends. And they know it’s wrong, but they just can’t help it; they can’t stop.”

Schulz emphasizes that individuals with addiction are good people – just in a negative situation. He said there is still a societal taboo.

“They make judgments about these people, like they’re bad people," he said. "And again, really, they’re not.”

So, his family decided to take a bold step and said in Dane’s obituary that he “lost his struggle with addiction.”

His sister Becky Schulz said the family received positive reinforcement for their openness.

“People have come to us and said, ‘I’m dealing with the same thing, and I’m so glad you put that out there. Because nobody does,’” she said.

Rebecca Rogers, an organizer of the walk, said it’s a place for acceptance and open conversation. She believes drugs, like opiates, are handed out too easily.

Credit Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ
Rebecca Rogers is an organizer of the walk. She encourages people to become familiar with overdose reversal drugs like Narcan.

“My brother was given Vicodin at age 12. And from there, it went to Oxycontin, which is another prescription drug," she said. "When that was expensive and the addiction started to set in, someone gave him heroin. It’s cheaper and more accessible now. And I think it just started with those prescription pills.”

Rogers wants to foster awareness on the danger of drugs; she said people should know about Narcan, or Naloxone, which is used to reverse the effects of an overdose.

“So just making people aware that is something," she said. "If you know an addict, you should have [it] in your home. It’s making the areas around here that have little pharmacies, letting them know they can get it and people can buy it without a prescription.”

Misty Michel walked for her brother who is currently in prison because of drug use. She wears a shirt that reads, “Shoot your local heroin dealer.” She admits it's a bold statement, but said she's fed up.

Michel said overdoses are also related to how dealers make the drugs.

“It’s the way the drug is cut; it’s what they’re using to make the drugs," she said. "It’s not pure; it’s just laced with all kinds of stuff.”

She said getting help is easier said than done, especially with the stigma surrounding addiction.

“It’s easier to tell somebody to get help and follow the steps than to actually do it," she said. "When you don’t have any self-confidence or self-esteem, and don’t think your self-worth is much, it’s really easy to go back.”

Michel said even when people muster up the courage to seek help, they may not have access to what they need for recovery.

“It’s a battle with ‘you have insurance, if you don’t have insurance. If you don’t have insurance, then when you get in, you can only stay this long, or our insurance only covers this long.’”

Michel hopes rehab facilities and other community resources can do more to work with patients.

Tracy Burtis found Hope Over Addiction just days after her son died from an overdose. She said the organization provides emotional support for everyone in the battle against addiction.

Credit Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ
The organization Hope Over Addiction presents a poster with photos of people who passed away from an overdose.

“Once you know you’re addicted, or once you’ve realized that your loved one is addicted," she said, "that’s when your grieving starts. That’s when you need to start reaching out and getting help because you and I are the only ones who can help each other.”

Burtis said police and fire departments should be involved in the next steps.

“’Okay, I’ve gotten you out of your overdose.’ But what do you do now? ‘These are the people you can talk to. We can help you get through these rough times, learn new coping skills, get you treatment, and find a way to help you and your family get through this,’” she said.

Rogers said she hopes to form a foundation in the next few years.

“Even if it’s here that we can have a weekly or monthly educational thing for addiction," she said, "for helping people, and have some resources, and show people an overdose kit and give that out to people.”

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