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Two local organizations spearheaded by mothers seeking to combat the opioid epidemic have joined forces to continue an annual 5K run/walk to help bring awareness and resources to those who may be struggling from addiction.
In January, 2015, the father of Casey Weiser’s son, Kevin Struck, 33, died from a heroin overdose. Ms. Weiser worried about how her son would feel telling others how his father died.
“I think when you say heroin addict or alcoholic, people think of certain characteristics — they steal, how could your dad or mom do that to you? That’s not what you want your parent to be remembered for. We know those are bad things, but you want to honor things about your parents,” she said.
As a social worker, she wanted to help break down stigmas and offer support to her son going through the grieving process. Within 10 months, she set up the first race, and she has continued to organize the Rethink Addiction Heroin Awareness Run for years following.
She wanted to teach her son to be resilient and to bring positive change through the walk, she said.
While she had dedicated volunteers, Ms. Weiser was primarily getting the event off the ground by herself. She had concerns about coordinating the growing event and thought about not hosting it again this year.
That’s when she met Moms Surviving Our Ultimate Loss, or Moms SOUL. The support group is made up mostly of mothers — but also grandmothers, aunts, and sisters — who lost a family member to the opioid epidemic. The women meet monthly and offer support to each other as well as provide resources and education to the community.
Moms SOUL jumped on board as their visions closely aligned, and this year’s walk is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sunday at the Bedford High School football stadium, 8285 Jackman Rd. in Temperance.
The preregistration deadline has passed, but registration can be completed online at Dave’s Running Shop or in person the day of, beginning at 8 a.m. The cost is $30.
This year, Ms. Weiser said the money raised during the event will be turned over to Moms SOUL. With the funds, members of the group hope to help others in need with monetary donations toward funeral expenses. No mother should have to go through losing a child by herself, said Penni Pelow, a co-founder of the support group.
“What we want to do, we can’t do without [the community]. Everyone needs to be involved, and it’s bigger than us. Without them, we can’t do it. The support we have is great right now,” she said.
Many of the mothers, including Ms. Pelow and co-founders Monica Rancatore and Laurie Clemons, plan to be there to honor the memory of their sons, Matthew Pegish, 31, Peter Michael Rancatore, 20, and Brandon Morris, 30, respectively.
Aside from the walk or run, there will be a children’s area with arts and crafts, plus inflatables, a silent auction, gift basket raffle, and food trucks.
There also will be a resource fair dedicated to prevention, treatment, recovery, and grief-support services.
“You’re able to relate to other people who are going through it. You can look around and know that people have been touched by addiction as well and they understand what’s happened to you,” Ms. Weiser said.
Laurie Clemens described her son, Brandon Morris, as an outgoing, all-American boy who loved to play football and go fishing.
"He was always there for me," Clemens said, "a typical mama’s boy."
On a spring day in 2015, Morris died after a heroin overdose caused him to stop breathing. Clemens said she was crushed to find her son brain dead in a hospital bed.
“I never expected Brandon would stick a needle in his arm,” Clemens said. "We don’t want this to happen to anyone else’s family. The heartache is just unbearable.”
At the hospital, Clemens was surprised to find out her son could be considered for organ donation, even though he was an intravenous drug user and died from an overdose. Doctors were able to match Morris' liver to a 57-year-old grandfather named George Henderson.
Within a year of Morris' death, Clemens met the man saved by her son's donated organ. After losing her son, Clemens said she has found a bit of hope in her friendship with Henderson, who was previously a stranger but has since become “family.”
In recent years, so many people have died as a result of the nation’s opioid epidemic that it has caused the number of organ donations from fatal overdose victims to skyrocket -- an unexpected consequence that highlights the nation’s agonizing opioid crisis.
In 1994, only 29 donors in the U.S. had died of drug overdoses. Last year, that number climbed to 848, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the nonprofit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system.
The rise in numbers is not due solely to the increase in opioid overdoses. Medical advances have also allowed more organs from drug intoxicated donors -- which were often unusable for transplantation years ago -- to save the lives of some people facing long waiting lists.
In the midst of an epidemic that remains stigmatized as a moral, or even criminal issue, rather than as a health crisis, some families have found hope after their losses through organ donations