Photo by Kelly White
Parents and members from Forgotten Victims of Drug Induced Homicide who have lost children to addiction spoke at the Oak Lawn Public Library's final opioid presentation on Oct. 20. Speaking at the presentation were (from left) founder Terry Almanza and Aisha Betancourt.
By Kelly White
Watching a loved one struggle with an addiction can be heartbreaking and painful. In the midst of an opioid epidemic in the United States, officials at the Oak Lawn Public Library took a stand by educating the public of the severity of this ongoing problem through a month-long program called, “The Opioid Crisis: Understanding the Epidemic.”
The program concluded at the library, 9427 S. Raymond Ave., on Oct. 20 with personal stories of opioid addiction.
“I feel that the audience can gain awareness of how members of their community have been personally affected by the opioid epidemic,” said Melissa Apple, adult programming librarian at the library. “Many people don't realize there is an epidemic even though it is affecting people right here in Oak Lawn. Personal stories such as the ones that will be shared will hopefully open people's eyes to the crisis and inspire them to continue spreading awareness.”
Featured speakers included parents and members from Forgotten Victims of Drug Induced Homicide who have lost children to addiction. The organization’s mission is to raise awareness about the effectiveness of criminal investigation and prosecution in reducing deaths related to suspected drug toxicity and to serve families of victims who were unlawfully delivered a controlled substance resulting in their death.
“We have invited them to share their incredibly powerful stories about opioids and addiction at this event,” Apple said.
Opioids are prescribed medication used to treat pain. However, with prolonged use, the body can develop dependence. The dependence causes withdrawal symptoms, which makes it difficult to stop taking them.
However, opioids are not the only drugs causing fatalities in our local communities, according to the founder of Forgotten Victims of Drug Induced Homicide and Chicago Police Officer Terry Almanza.
“Our children are often referred to as junkies,” said Almanza, of Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood. “They are not. They made a horrible choice, but not the choice to die. Never be so foolish to think that this could never happen to my child.”
Almanza is one of the few parents in Illinois to see someone charged with their child’s overdose death. Her stepdaughter, Sydney, had just graduated from high school and was headed to college to play volleyball when she died in 2015 from a fatal dose of Ecstasy at the age of 18.
“My daughter made a choice, a horrible choice, and she paid with her life,” Almanza said.
Chicago police originally classified her case as a non-criminal death investigation.
Almanza said she believes every fatal overdose should be treated like a criminal investigation, and after fighting relentlessly for her daughter’s case, Sydney’s dealers were charged with drug-induced homicide; making it the only case in Cook County since 2015 that that resulted in a conviction of drug-induced homicide.
Aisha Betancourt also shared her tragic story of loss on Sunday.
“Today is my 42nd birthday,” said Betancourt, of Chicago Heights. “It’s also my first birthday without my oldest daughter.”
Betancourt lost her daughter, BreAna, at the age of 25 to addiction on May 15.
“There is nothing like losing a child and thinking that I could have done something differently,” Betancourt said. “The grieving process has been horrific.”
During the event, local community members were also encouraged to share any stories they or loved ones may have experienced while struggling with the harsh and scary reality of dependence or addiction.
“We, at the Oak Lawn Public Library, feel that the impact of these stories will lend a more personal touch to this crisis than just hearing numbers and facts,” Apple said. “Hearing the first-hand experience of someone who went through addiction or lost a loved one to addiction is extremely powerful.”
Symptoms of opioid addiction can include: chronic constipation, small pupils, nausea, sensitivity to pain, shallow breathing and slurred speech.
Those struggling with addiction may also experience sudden and dramatic mood swings that seem out of character. They may also begin to have impulsive actions and decision-making, engaging in risky activities, such as driving under the influence, and visiting multiple doctors in order to obtain more prescriptions.
Treatment for opioid-use disorder is available from medical professionals. Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone paired with support programs can help people recover.
“This is not a fun topic to talk about, but it’s an important topic to talk about,” said Jim Dieters, director of the Oak Lawn Library. “We have to bring these things out in the open and we have to talk about them. If we don’t talk about it, it will continue.”