Standing next to a photograph of a smiling young man, Voorhees resident Gregg Wolfe told Beth El Hebrew High School teens and their parents about his son Justin’s life before he came into the grips of heroin.
An excellent student who loved sports, Justin played soccer, ice and roller hockey and practiced karate. The Eastern High School graduate spent four consecutive summers at Camp Saginaw, loving every minute of it, said Wolfe.
“Justin was a loving, caring, affectionate, ambitious, intelligent young man and had many superb attributes,” he said. “However, his life — and what he would have been able to contribute to his family, friends and society — came to a screeching halt on Dec. 19, 2012.”
The Temple University student was 21 years old when he died of a heroin overdose. As Wolfe pointed out, Justin’s life trajectory before addiction was similar to many of those gathered March 12 for “Right in Our Backyard,” a hard-hitting opiate awareness program sponsored by Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Wolfe, who became an activist after his son’s death, generously sponsors it.
The two-hour event was a lot to process. Besides Wolfe, Voorhees mother Sue D’Ambrosio spoke about her son Mark, also an Eastern graduate who died of an overdose the summer before he was to start college in 2009. Other presenters included an addictions specialist, Cherry Hill police officers and a 35-yearold recovering addict. The group was also transfixed by a short film entitled “Kids Are Dying,” featuring South Jersey teens, many living in the streets of Camden, talking candidly about what their dependencies have cost them.
In its first year, “Right in Our Backyard” has reached over 400 students and parents at five area synagogues. The last presentation will be 7 p.m. April 19th at the Katz JCC for BBYO members and their parents. Working in partnership with Camden County’s Heroin Task Force, it will soon be expanding into the secular community, said Rena Essrog, JFCS director of clinical services and talent.
The timing could not be more pressing. Heroin is “the numberone health care crisis” confronting the state, according to a 2014 report released by the Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use by New Jersey’s Youth and Young Adults.
Wolfe, who founded the awareness group Squash the Secret, also speaks widely, both to lobby for reform of the HIPAA Law (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) and to urge parents to consider taking legal steps, including seeking Power of Attorney over their children, to gain control of their medical management. Currently, the HIPAA Law protects the medical records of young adults over 16 in New Jersey. In Justin’s case, at least two of his doctors were aware of his heroin use, but under the law, his father was not entitled to know.
For JFCS, partnering with Wolfe was a natural fit. JFCS has long been providing support services for addictions and drug awareness education. However, “Right in Our Backyard” marks the first time the focus has turned exclusively to the heroin and opiate crisis, said Rena Essrog.
Many parents, including even doctors and other health professionals, have been shocked to learn the connection between legally obtained prescription drugs and heroin as well as the familiar places in South Jersey that are hotbeds of drug activity,
Among the many messages of the night, the presenters advised parents to encourage open communication with their children but also to keep tabs on their friends, phone and use of social media.
As D’Ambrosio related advice to her son’s situation, she wished she had known the signs earlier. Mark loved baseball but started losing interest in high school around the same time he started hanging out with a new crowd.
“I wish I would have been educated about this in the younger years,” said D’Ambrosio, who distributed her book “Why My Son” to all attendees. “I never, even thought he would try drugs.”
Written by JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff