Heroin in Chicago’s Suburbs: How the drug impacts families

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It takes an average of 20 months to learn a loved one is using heroin.There’s no smell like alcohol or marijuana, and heroin users are very good liars! Police say heroin has been a growing problem in Chicago’s suburbs for at least 15 years. Gaynor Hall’s Cover Story is        not about numbers, or the addicts themselves; but about what heroin is doing to families.

“If you use heroin and you use it long enough you will die.” Lea Minalga spends a lot of time     in this cemetery in St. Charles. Her son’s friend, Jesse Tecuanhuey, was buried here in 1998.    “I started “Hearts of Hope” because of Jesse, because he was our first home town boy that I knew that had died from an overdose of heroin. And they’re good kids and they come from good families, and they’re dearly missed.” Lea is a different kind of heroine. Over the years, she has attended nearly 200 funerals, most of them people she never met. She wants their families to know she understands. Her son was addicted at age 16. “Justin, my son said he tried it and it was if heaven opened up.  And from that day forward, our lives were altered forever.” Back then, Lea says no one wanted to talk about heroin. It didn’t fit her hometown’s image; St. Charles named one of the best places in American to raise children. “And what are your 3 feelings?”  So, Lea started “Hearts of Hope.” “I’m apprehensive about his future.”Every other week, the support group gathers in a donated office space in an industrial park in Geneva, all people feeling shame and pain. …”and you come and you feel better.”

Addicts don’t always show. But their families do; Fathers, mothers, grandmothers, sisters. “Did you leave because of Morgan in some way?” (Sarah nods yes) 26 year old Sarah Krol is saying good-bye tonight to Lea, her Mom Trish, and the support group she’s turned to and volunteered with. Her lisslt sister Morgan, now 17, started using when she was only 12. “It was like I was mourning somebody who was still living you know. There were times when she was missing for a month at a time. We didn’t know if she was dead or alive.” Sarah is trained to administer the opiate antidote Narcan, or it’s generic equivalent. She wanted her parents to keep it in their house, just in case her sister overdosed at home. “It’s kind of like instant detox. And a lot of times they’re not even aware that they’ve been revived.” Lea keeps it in her house too.

And “Hearts of Hope” helped train Kane County police officers in the use of the emergency narcotic. Every patrol car carries Narcan and needles, and it’s saving lives. But, Kane County Sheriff Don Kramer says education, not narcan, is the answer. “Whether your children are doing drugs or not, I think you would want to know a little bit more about the drug culture, drug usage in your community. That’s the only way we’re gonna solve it is to start to talk about it.”  Heroin flows into the Chicago area from Mexico. Users in the west suburbs hop on the so-called heroin highways, I-88, 355, AND 290. Sheriff Kramer says heroin is plentiful, potent, and cheap. And for many, fills the void when opiate based prescription painkillers run out.“It’s very easy to get opiate based drugs. And that is potentially a larger problem than heroin usage alone.”

Despite what she’s been through, Sarah defends her little sister and other heroin users. “They don’t choose to be an addict. Nobody chooses to be an addict. They made a poor choice. But it ignites a fire in them that you can’t put out.” Morgan has been clean now for 96 days.  She’ll turn 18 this month. “It changed me, changed me forever, and I’ll always worry about her too.” With Morgan on the road to recovery, it’s time to hit the road herself. Sarah is moving to Seattle to focus on her own life. “The last couple years have been just a whirlwind of emotion and trying to be there for my family and my sister and I realize I can’t force Morgan to make the right decision. She’s going to have to do that on her own.” Lea Minalga says,  “The funerals are coming so fast and furious that I can’t attend ‘em all anymore.”

She says she’ll keep attending the funerals of heroin victims, though for her own son, heaven can wait. At 34, Justin is doing well.  But, like all families dealing with heroin addiction, Lea lives in constant fear that with recovery can come relapse. “We would die for our children. And yet we can’t lay in their place. So we just have to hope and gather and connect with one another. If they’re still alive, there’s hope.”

Coroner Rob Russell says 22 people died in Kane County last year. But six lives have been saved since last July with Narcan. He’s teaming up with the Sheriff to hole more public forums to get everybody talking about the problem, before it’s YOUR problem.  If you’d like more information, click these links and please share this story on Facebook and Twitter.

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Brad Piper contributed to this report.

More information:

More Interviews

LEA MINALGA / "HEARTS OF HOPE" :  TALKING TO YOUR KIDS:

“I gave him like one or two good parent to child talks, don’t use drugs, drugs are bad. And he responded you know I never would Mom, drugs are stupid, and I believed him. I thought good that went really well.” (laughs)

SARAH KROL:  "MY SISTER SCARED ME"

“She was not herself, she was not her, she was not in that body, she was possessed by the drug, and it was scary, And the group of people she associated with that scared me. What were they gonna come to my family’s house and rob them? It’s scary – the whole everything that’s associated with the drug.”

SHERIFF DON KRAMER:  "HEROIN HAPPENS TO GOOD FAMILIES"

“It’s not just kids that are overdosing on heroin. It affects every age group. It affects every social group. It affects every economic group. So let’s deal with some of the underlying problems, which could be depression, it could be people are using these drugs to kill the social ills –their daily pressures. It’s no different than perhaps alcohol except this is a deadly drug.”

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5 comments

  • renee hareld

    My daughter is 25 years old….heroin addict clean 7 years. All of her friends from that time in her life are dead….from the ages of 16 to 24…all gone! I’m one of the lucky ones…my daughter is still here. She went on to get a degree in psychology and currently helps people get back into the mainstream after traumas and drug abuse. Never give up!! Never turn your back on them.

  • PeterT

    The heroin in the burbs stories have been running for ages via broadcast and print media. I can testify that I lived in a far nw suburb for most of the nineties, and heroin and crack were readily available. Two of the local newspapers went out of their way to NOT report about it. I suspect that they didn’t want to tick people off with negative publicity. The village and the local police weren’t motivated to deal with the problem either.

  • Jessica

    I myself is a recovering heroin addict I have been sober 5 years, I was only out running the streets a short time and let me tell you in that short time I lost everything mentally and physically. Like it said in the article I had many dreams and goals for my life and being a heroin addict was not on of them. I became a liar,a thief,a manipulator and it did not matter who or what I did any of those things to. I hurt my kids and family the most even though I did not want to. People have asked me why seeing my kids didn’t stop me from using and my answer was, I was a slave to heroin it told me when to eat sleep shower take care of my kids be mean to people cry anything you name it. After everything I have did or have said to my family they never gave up on me or turned there backs on me because they knew the real me not the me heroin made me into be. My mom begged me for yrs to get help so just to get her off my case I would go to detox pretend I was sober and off to the races I went. I had to get sober when I was ready when I hit my own rock bottom. Finding my 18 yr old brother dead because of a heroin overdose still wasn’t enough and to look back at my life now it was total insanity. Today I am truly grateful to be sober, but I still have to remember where I came from otherwise no matter how bad it was in a blink of an eye I can be right where I was.
    I would love to be apart of a group that goes around sharing about experience strength and hope so people know. Here in McHenry county we have nothing like that.

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