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‘This has got to stop’

A mother’s plea leads to a movement with one goal: Stop Heroin

Heroin walkNicky Vigna and Billy Joe Richardson share some things in common. Both were fresh from high school, with warm and loving friends and family to support them. Both of their lives were just beginning to unfold.

Then they found heroin.

Soon, both struggled with addiction and recovery. They were each 20 years old when they died from heroin overdoses, becoming two more statistics in the growing toll of what authorities now say is a “heroin epidemic.” Both now rest in graves near each other in St. Charles Memorial Gardens Cemetery.

Those they left behind have not accepted their departures quietly. Their parents and siblings, along with a growing circle of families experiencing the same heartbreak, and others fighting their own addiction, are saying enough is enough.

A mother steps forward

Gee Vigna [right]

Gee Vigna [right]

When Gee Vigna lost her daughter, Nicky, she discovered a lot of parents, friends and families with their own Nickys. And she knew it was time to act.

Nicky’s death has not faded away. She’s remembered, along with the others like Billy Joe, by her survivors who are holding organized community walks to spread the word that what is happening should stop.

The announcements of local walks are a regular feature of the Walking for Wellness: Stop Heroin Facebook page. Typically, the posts tell where walks will be held – often at Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters. On Tuesday nights, a mixed group of young, old and middle-aged people appear, wearing bright shirts with “Stop Heroin” printed on the front and back. Some carry small signs; some carry photographs of loved ones they’ve lost.

Gee Vigna, through force of personality and passion, has turned what started as a simple gesture of grief into a movement expanding throughout the country.

“I characterize myself as a train wreck,” she said earlier this month during an interview.

She and her daughter Brittany’s Walking for Wellness: Stop Heroin nonprofit provides support to families grieving for those they have lost to heroin and opiates, as well as persons in recovery and addicts. The organization and its walks are, in part, an education effort aimed at removing the stigma of heroin and opioid abuse and trying to save other lives.

Nicky’s father discovered her in her bedroom on Jan. 3, 2013.

“I was at work and I got a call that there is  a medical emergency at [my] house,” Vigna remembers. “And she was gone.”

It was Nicky’s second heroin overdose. The first, on Feb. 4, 2010, was also in her bedroom. That time responders were able to bring her back using Narcan, a chemical treatment that can bring people out of an overdose. The years between the overdoses were marked by the struggle against a drug “like no other,” Vigna said.

Nicky was 17 and a senior at Fort Zumwalt South High when she was first introduced to painkillers and then to heroin by a friend.

“In our household, it was St. Joseph’s Baby Aspirin and Aleve – that’s what we had,” Vigna said. “The common thread with every parent is that they have no idea what’s going on.”

She added that, at the time, heroin was never talked about in the schools and media.

“So, when she first overdosed, I was told that my daughter was a heroin addict by a paramedic who was injecting her with Narcan to bring her back to life,” she said. “There were needle marks in her arm. No one in the family knew.”

Nearly three years later, it was time to grieve.

“I always walked all the time; for me it was a way to clear my head a lot of the time,” Vigna said. An advertising specialty business person, she heat-pressed the words “Stop Heroin” on a shirt and started to walk her Chadwick subdivision in St. Peters.

A neighbor stopped her; she knew Nicky had died. The woman said her son had been a heroin addict for 10 years. Both had lived in silence.

The woman had never talked to Vigna before.

The woman said her life was a disaster and so chaotic that she didn’t have time. The next day, Vigna walked through the neighborhood with the same shirt on and another neighbor stopped her and said her nephew was a heroin addict.

“I called Nicky’s sister Brittany and I’m like ‘this has got to stop, this has got to stop now, this has got to stop.’ I walked two days and I walked literally 50 feet this way and 75 feet that way in a neighborhood where everybody says it [heroin] is not a problem out here.”

The subdivision has $200,000 or more homes.

“This is happening everywhere and no one is talking about this,” Vigna said.

The neighbors had walked by each other for 10 years – the shirt seemed to make her more approachable. “And that’s how it began,” Vigna said.

Soon Vigna and Brittany developed the Facebook page that discussed how Nicky died. They called their effort “Walking for Wellness: Stop Heroin.” Their first official walk was on May 21, 2013.

“They just started coming, and they started coming and coming and coming –people in recovery, people who were active users, people who had lost kids, people who were friends of ours for support and it was just amazing,” Vigna said. “We just kept getting emails from all over the country from grieving parents asking how to organize a walk in [their] area,” she said.

The first walk outside the St. Charles/St. Louis area was in Louisville, Kentucky, and drew 500 people. Vigna said there are now walks in at least nine cities around the country, as far away as New Hampshire and southern Indiana.

“It became a great big support group,” Vigna said.

Soon calls came from schools asking her to talk to students and staff, and then more calls asking her to talk at community meetings and forums.

The experience has shaped Vigna’s opinions. She said she has learned that heroin shouldn’t be used even once, that recovery is expensive and health insurance is a necessity, that recovery is a lifelong struggle that goes beyond a three-week stay in rehab, that young people need more drug education than the DARE program taught in fifth grade by police.

School administrators and parents have to talk about addiction and act now, Vigna said.

“A reactive approach ends up in you burying your kids,” she said.

A father says ‘not even once’

Joe Richardson, a former baseball player who played for the Boston Red Sox, recently told middle-schoolers crowded into the Hollenbeck Junior High gymnasium in St. Charles that he had lost three of the boys he had coached in baseball to heroin overdoses.

One of them was his son, Billy Joe.

“I lost my son on Aug. 8, 2012, at 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday,” Richardson said. “I got a call from a police department that my son had overdosed on heroin. He’s gone.”

Richardson, along with Jeff Mozingo, is involved in a drug education group called the Awaken Project.

Mozingo, a professional drummer and owner of Mozingo Music, and Richardson have taken their anti-drug presentation on the road to 60 schools and groups in three states over the last three years. Mozingo puts on a drumming clinic to get the students’ attention and Richardson talks about his son. Both talk extensively about the dangers of heroin and prescription pain killers.

“That was my only son and he was a wonderful person,” Richardson said. “He could play seven instruments, he was a three-sport guy, and he’d give you the shirt off his back. But he made one fatal mistake – he wanted to try heroin because he didn’t think once would matter. Once will matter, once will take your life or it will change it.”

Richardson said his son, a graduate of Francis Howell North High, took 10 months to die after sampling heroin. The  second player was dead in six months, and the third  died five minutes after first using the drug. He now visits his son at St. Charles Memorial Gardens. He asked if the students wanted to be visited there.

“I’m telling you if you want to get curious about heroin it’s going to take your life,” Richardson said.

Heroin these days is purer than in the past and attacks the brain more quickly, making it easier to become addicted and harder to break that addiction, Richardson said.

Heroin turned Billy Joe “into someone I didn’t know anymore.”

He became involved in crime, but Billy Joe returned from his last rehab stint a changed person, Richardson said. He had a job, a girlfriend and was clean for 90 days. Then, he relapsed and died.

“We need to get our head out of the sand and realize we have a problem, we have issues in our schools, communities, in our state, our country,” Richardson told the students at Hollenbeck. “We have an epidemic and it’s not going away. The only way we can beat this is education.”

After the presentation, students came up to both Mozingo and Richardson and said how much they liked the presentation.

“I do think we are making a difference,” Richardson said. “If we save one kid a school I think it’s worth it, but I think we’ve done more than that.

“All we can do to combat this is education – educate, educate because you arrest the head guy [drug dealer] and there’s a guy behind him to take over. This is not cut the head off and the snake dies.”

A price to pay

Vigna and Richardson said that the road to any kind of recovery for substance abusers is difficult, not only for the users but also their families. Beyond the expense there is heartache.

Vigna said that, for parents, the time in a recovery program for a substance abuser is “the best three weeks of your entire life after you have been living with an addict.”

“Your purse can stay out, your [car] keys are there, your car is in the garage, your money is still in your wallet, you sleep at night, you’re not getting any late night phone calls. It’s a vacation from your child.”

But that changes when the user gets out. Recovered users have to deal with the allure of heroin for the rest of their lives so continued treatment is needed.

Continued treatment means there are meetings to attend, and often addicts lose their driver’s licenses. Sometimes there are felony convictions. Sometimes the coping skills aren’t there for substances abusers.

Who will be driving to these appointments and dealing with authorities? It’s often the parents, Vigna said.

Nicky was a “privileged addict” who had transportation and a roof over her head. Yet because the need for the drug is so strong, users often steal to fund their habits. Richardson and Vigna said that their children lied, stole and looked at crime.

“She [Nicky] became the lying, stealing thief that they all do,” Vigna said.

Richardson said he not only lost a son, but his daughters lost a brother who was “a knight in shining armor.”

Life after their deaths holds many regrets.

Vigna said she and her family knew so little and were naive about so many things. “You realize you did so much wrong,” she said.

A family also really never adjusts to the loss, she said.

It’s hard for Richardson to visit his son’s grave and, because of the memories, a family vacation spot in Florida.

Vigna said the details of managing the walks and the nonprofit can be difficult.

“Does it become overwhelming for a family sometimes? Yes, it does,” she said. “But so is the loss of a child.”

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