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Facing heroin a community effort

Student filmmaker Kelly McClutchequeues up her documentary “NeuquDrugs” before its premiere 2012. | For Sun-Times Mediafile

Student filmmaker Kelly McClutcheon queues up her documentary “Neuqua on Drugs” before its premiere in 2012. | For Sun-Times Mediafile

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Updated: January 16, 2014 6:39AM

I’m hardly an expert on heroin, but over the past couple years I’ve written so many stories on the topic I guess I should not have been surprised WBEZ asked if I could be interviewed for a multi-media project the public radio station was doing in conjunction with the Chicago Reader on drugs in Chicago and the suburbs.

The series began this past week. And even though our newsrooms have been writing almost nonstop about the local drug epidemic, this well-done project likely will serve as an eye-opener for even more people who still have heads firmly entrenched in our backyard sand lots.

That’s a good thing, as police have said time and again when media attention wanes, the problem seems to get worse. If you’ve not checked out the segment, go to

One thing is for sure: Young people are still dying in record numbers. But so are older people. DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen, who will be featured on this week’s segment of the WBEZ/Reader series, points to a rise in heroin overdoses of those 50 and older the past couple years. Total DuPage’s numbers, he told me last week, show 45 deaths in 2013 with three months not yet tallied compared to 38 in all of 2012.

And even though the story WBEZ reporter Bill Healy talked to me about focused on drugs at Neuqua Valley High School — specifically reaction to the 2012 student-made documentary “Neuqua on Drugs” — this upper middle class school is hardly the only place facing this problem. Nor is Naperville the only town struggling with this epidemic.

“We go into houses that are opulent, we go into houses where it is dangerous to walk through. It touches all communities, all socio-economic groups,” said Jorgensen. “This story begs to be told more and more.”

As we take these last couple of weeks in December to look back at the top stories here in the Fox Valley, we reluctantly acknowledge heroin continues to rank high in our headline count. One of the most compelling interviews I did this year was with Sandy Harris, a Rush-Copley OB-GYN who this summer, on the first anniversary of her beloved adopted son Sean’s death to heroin, bravely stepped forward to show this scourge can strike anyone’s family.

Sadly, I could line up a whole page of faces of parents — in Kane, DuPage, Will and Kendall counties — who have lost loved ones or whose kids are in the fights of their lives. Many, understandably, don’t want to go public. Their grief is still so raw. But others, like Amy Miller, whose daughter Megan, a Neuqua student, overdosed last year and was featured in the WBEZ/Reader project, have become staunch advocates of heroin awareness this past year.

So has Naperville’s Caroline Kacena, who, with two of her late son John’s friends, started a Facebook page called Open Hearts, Open Eyes that now has more than 8,000 followers nationwide. The site is where those affected, including addicts and their loved ones, can find support and resources instead of punishment or judgment.

Kacena has also thrown her time and energy behind a program that puts the anti-overdose drug nalaxone into the hands of addicts and their families. She gets criticism and kudos for her attempts: Some welcome the drug, others want nothing to do with it. But Kacena remains convinced making nalaxone available is the best way to keep addicts alive in order to help them.

“With heroin” she points out, “there are no do-overs.”

Kacena is one of a growing number of parents banding together to figure out solutions. And equally determined to seek answers are officials like Jorgensen, who is working with the DuPage County Medical Society and County Board to identify trends and needs. Those dying from heroin are getting younger and older, he says, as more people move from prescription opiates like oxycodone or vicodin to the more readily available, cheaper and powerfully addictive heroin.

There are multiple programs in the works that he’s optimistic about, including school-based initiatives and a county website funded by a $100,000 grant that will roll out next month. We will write much more about all these efforts in the new year, I can promise, because heroin’s grip on society does not seem to be fading.

Fortunately, neither are the efforts of those willing to face this local scourge head-on.

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