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An ongoing battle

Wheaton,  01/23/14--About 150 citizens, county and local officials, and heroin experts attended the forum. The DuPage Coalition Against Heroin sponsored a heroin prevention forum Thursday evening at the DuPage Administration Building.  | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Wheaton,  01/23/14--Recovering heroin addict Bill Patrianakos, a board member of HERO (Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization), speaks about his life experiences with heroin. The DuPage Coalition Against Heroin sponsored a heroin prevention forum Thursday evening at the DuPage Administration Building.  | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Wheaton,  01/23/14--DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin as emcee introduces the forum agenda and the speakers. The DuPage Coalition Against Heroin sponsored a heroin prevention forum Thursday evening at the DuPage Administration Building.  | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
Wheaton,  01/23/14--Superintendent of DuPage High School District 88 Scott Helton talks about some of the anti-drug initiatives educators are trying in the schools. The DuPage Coalition Against Heroin sponsored a heroin prevention forum Thursday evening at the DuPage Administration Building.  | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media

Struggling to describe his experiences to those attending the DuPage County Heroin Prevention Forum, 21-year-old Cody Lewis told of starting on the path to an eventual heroin addiction when he first smoked marijuana as a 12-year-old.

The Batavia High School graduate said he progressed to drinking occasionally, then raiding the family medicine cabinet for prescription drugs, then moving on to heroin.

“I tried it, and as soon as I felt that high from heroin, it was like a void had been filled up,” he said.

Being clean and sober for 94 days, Lewis is in the early stages of recovery, but he can count himself as more fortunate than the 46 DuPage heroin users who died from overdoses in 2013.

The number has spiked from the yearly average of between 20 and 23 in the earlier part of the century when the county first began keeping track of heroin-related deaths.

The epidemic prompted the formation of the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin last July, sponsors of the DuPage event Thursday night.

The group includes County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, State’s Attorney Robert Berlin, Coroner Richard Jorgensen, County Public Defender Jeff York, and Regional Superintendent of Education Darlene Ruscitti.

The forum led off with a presentation for representatives of DuPage school districts highlighting the educational efforts of the group.

Educators received an eight-section toolkit of information regarding heroin that included a Power Point presentation and information regarding basic heroin facts and the importance of education to prevent schoolkids from ever being tempted to try the drug.

Students from The Technology Center of DuPage were honored with a prize for a video essay on the subject of preventing heroin abuse.

The coalition also unveiled a website, dupageheroin.org, that contains even more information designed to give educators the tools to cope with the problem.

Cronin noted a news item from the past weekend that detailed a major heroin arrest in his hometown of Elmhurst.

“Heroin is prevalent in my hometown and in your hometown as well,” he told about 150 people gathered in the DuPage County Administration Building Auditorium.

As various speakers could attest, Lewis wasn’t alone in his struggle with heroin.

“I couldn’t believe I was saying the word heroin (relating to my family),” Felicia Miceli said when relating how both of her sons wound up involved with the drug.

Miceli spoke of how her son Louie began drinking and smoking pot when he became a high school football player and began to go to parties.

He eventually graduated to heroin use, spiraling out of control until he finally was admitted to rehab.

He successfully completed the program, but relapsed and last Aug. 7, Miceli learned that she had lost him to an overdose in her own home.

“My life has been forever shattered at that point,” she said, before stressing the point made by almost every one of the night’s speaker — that the scourge of heroin abuse cut across all demographic boundaries.

“I’m here to tell you that it can happen to you,” she said.

Miceli advised parents that looking back at the years leading up to her son’s death, she might have been more protective of Louie in the sense of being more discriminating in her choice of whom to allow to socialize with her son.

“I would have been more of a ‘momma bear,’” she said.

Louie Miceli’s cousin Angelica Selvaggio, a fourth-grade teacher at Americana Intermediate School, spoke of how heroin destroyed her cousin’s life and called for further education among young people.

“It completely crushes who a person is,” she said. “If he was maybe educated ... maybe his story would be different.”

Recovering addict Bill Patrianakos echoed Miceli’s comments and warned that the stereotypes about heroin addicts are mistaken. He urged that a one-size-fits-all approach to drug abuse — what he termed the “just say no” approach — would not work with every child.

“There’s no one reason,” he said, saying that young people are just as likely to turn to drugs because of depression, boredom, or curiosity as a poor environment.

Berlin said that 41 percent of the felony possession cases coming through his office in 2013 were heroin possession cases, a marked increase from the five cases in the county that he saw when he first came to DuPage a decade ago.

He also stressed that his office and various DuPage school districts are working on creating reciprocal reporting agreements to facilitate easier communication.

Berlin stressed that his office is not looking to lock up offenders for long periods of time and echoed other speakers that the key to preventing heroin abuse is education.

“We’re not going to arrest and prosecute our way out of this problem,” he said.

Ruscitti hopes that the new website will provide parents a safe place when seeking information about heroin.

She also warned that nothing would be accomplished if the community looked at heroin abuse as “the flavor of the month” and went on to other issues.

One Naperville educator was glad to see the effort begin.

“It’s a start,” Naperville District 203 counselor Kimberly Groll said.

But Groll also said that there existed a need to probe deeper into the causes of drug abuse.

“Why are they trying to escape reality,” she asked.

Other educators saw an opportunity to be proactive.

“We want to reach out to the county,” Karen Gordon, director of Student Services from Lisle District 202, said before the presentation.

Gordon said that Lisle had formed a committee to prevent the drug from infecting the community, including representatives from the school district, library, police and fire departments and park district.

“We want to be proactive,” she said, “we don’t want to be reactive.”

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