In Chester County, Moms Crusade in Name of Overdose Awareness

Jacki Smiro of Chester County, Pa. holds a photo of her son, RJ, who died of an overdose at the age of 17. Morgan Zalot | NBC10

This Wednesday, Aug. 31, is International Overdose Awareness Day. Watch NBC10's special report, Generation Addicted, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, or attend one of these events in our area to get involved in raising awareness about the heroin and opioid epidemic.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to include comments from District Attorney Tom Hogan, who pointed out the distinction between a recent federal report on the presence of opioids in death investigations and deaths classified as overdoses. The headline has been changed to reflect the difference.

In a suburb of rolling hills and picture-perfect neighborhoods near the edge of southeastern Pennsylvania, three moms are taking a stand to speak out and bring people together against a hidden monster they say is tearing apart families and slowly destroying their community.

Lynne Massi, Jacki Smiro and Gina Dischert have all faced the horrors of heroin and opioid addiction in their own families. Smiro lost her son, RJ, to an overdose in 2008 when he was 17. Massi watched her nephew, David, spend a short stint battling heroin addiction before dying of an overdose three years ago. And Dischert has spent the last three years watching two of her four children struggle with their own heroin addictions, ping-ponging from use to rehab to recovery, then back again.

All three women are on a crusade in their small corner of the world -- Chester County, or, as they call it, "the forgotten county" -- to push for awareness and change around an epidemic they say is killing local kids with regularity but remains shrouded in secrecy and denial.

The women played instrumental roles in organizing Chester County's first-ever International Overdose Awareness Day candlelight vigil to bring people affected by the heroin and opioid epidemic in their community together in hopes of attacking stigma and affecting change. The vigil will take place Wednesday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. at the New Garden Township Building in Landenberg.

"We're tired of burying our kids," Smiro said Tuesday. Since her son died, she's watched too many of his friends to count struggle with their own addictions. She flipped through haunting photos on her iPhone: One of one of her son's friends, alive, crouching by his headstone. The next, of the same friend's grave next to her son's, where he was buried after dying of an overdose last year.

Nationwide, overdoses killed more people than car crashes in 2014, and in Philadelphia alone, paramedics responded to an overdose call roughly every 45 minutes that year. As part of Generation Addicted, an NBC10 exclusive airing Monday, March 21 at 7 p.m., NBC10 Digital Reporters Vince Lattanzio and Morgan Zalot take a deeper look at heroin statistics. (Published Sunday, March 20, 2016)

"That's the new norm," Smiro said. "There are more families with a kid addicted than not."

Chester County overdose deaths totaled 54 in 2014 and 55 in 2015, according to District Attorney Tom Hogan, who added that the county coroner only recently began charting the presence of opioids in death investigations.

Hogan said that might explain alarming figures released by the Drug Enforcement Administration's most recent analysis of drug-related deaths in Pennsylvania. That report showed a 400 percent increase in deaths where heroin was present from 2014 to last year.

"The DEA recently produced a report, which relied on raw coroner data and the raw data included every death that had heroin present in the person's system," Hogan said. "That included murder, suicide, car crashes, not just overdoses. They are reflecting non-overdose deaths."

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Massi crusaded for the passage of David's Law in her nephew's name. It takes aim at preventing overdose deaths with a two-prong approach: Creating a good Samaritan law in Pennsylvania to protect anyone who calls 9-1-1 to report an overdose from prosecution for their own drug use or possession at the time, and providing for access to naloxone, an antidote than can rapidly reverse the effects of a opiate or heroin overdose.

The law has seen some gains, Massi said, saving more than 1,600 lives in less than two years. But she, Dischert and Smiro say that in Chester County, despite its prevalence, addiction still carries a serious stigma.

(left to right) Lynne Massi, Gina Dischert and Jacki Smiro show a flyer for a candlelight vigil they organized in Chester County for International Overdose Awareness Day. The vigil is at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31. Morgan Zalot | NBC10

"Everybody's in such denial," Massi said.

The women said pushing for awareness, acceptance and change hasn't been easy. They shared anecdotes of their frustration as they try to talk with parents about drugs permeating schools in the area, their pleas often falling on deaf ears.

"The most dangerous words are, 'Not my kid,'" Dischert said. For her, it has been her kids. But, she said, once she got past the shock of it, she started to fight for change.

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"We couldn't believe it. It blew our minds," Dischert said of the moment in 2013 that she and her husband discovered two of their children were using heroin. "Never in a million years did we ever expect our kids to use heroin."

She cautioned other parents that even though they may think addiction won't come into their homes, it's more likely than not that it will -- if not in their own children, then in their friends and classmates. Her kids started using by taking Percocet pills they got at school.

"Taking that one pill, it's Russian roulette," Dischert said.

The women said they're looking ahead and hoping to bring more help for people battling addiction to Chester County after Wednesday's vigil. They hope to establish a Young People in Recovery chapter there, as so many of those dying of overdoses are young adults, and dream of someday pushing for more rehabilitation services, including a rehab high school, to their community.

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They're all things they say are desperately needed there to prevent more funerals -- because as things are, they all know the next one is just around the corner.

"I have a feeling it's not going to be a happy ending for a lot of these kids," Dischert said.

"It's a matter of time. I don't think it's going to end well, but as humans, you have hope."

Click here to visit the event page for Chester County's candlelight vigil for International Overdose Awareness Day.