This past weekend, I had the privilege (and I mean that literally) to participate in an amazing conference hosted by SLLF and the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). Addressing the Opioid Crisis in America: Strategies that WORK! featured some of the most informed and inspiring presentations and presenters I have heard in my twenty years with SLLF. Every person presenting at the conference did so because they have committed their lives, and in many cases their fortunes, to helping America address the epidemic of drug addiction that is claiming more than a thousand lives a week in our country. While the backgrounds, positions, social status, occupations, and the approaches to addressing this epidemic varied greatly, three common factors bound the presenters together: each had experienced a personal tragedy, that created a passion, and motivated them to action. Briefly, I want to explore each of these components.
Touched by Tragedy. Stephen G. Lakis, longtime President of SLLF, has always had a passion for helping America to solve the public policy problems that vex it. That passion was evident when he led our team to propose to CASA a program on the opioid epidemic more than a year ago. But that passion become personal when Steve’s step-son lost his own battle with addiction last November. Similarly, more than two decades ago, Joseph Plumeri, a very successful businessman and internationally recognized leader in the corporate community, watched his own son suffer the same fate after numerous efforts at rehabilitation. In a sadly familiar fashion, Gary Mendell, founder of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, could not prevent his son Brian from losing his life to this tragic disease. When John Thorpe became Sheriff of Lucas County, Ohio, he realized that this epidemic was devastating the community that he loved: teenagers, young parents, and even grandparents were becoming victims of this deadly disease. And New York Assemblyman Ron Kim read of a young constituent whose family spent years trying to get her help, only to finally locate that help two months after she died.
Powered by Passion. The reality is that tragedy touches all of us. What sets some people apart is what they choose to do with that tragedy. All too often, we sadly accept tragedy as inevitable and turn our pain inward, dealing with it privately and all too often ineffectively, letting it eat away until the tragedy has consumed us. However, the people noted above, and others who spoke at the program, chose not to do that. Instead they took that tragedy and turned it into a passion. While SLLF has hosted programs on numerous topics over the past four decades, we usually host a program and then move on to the next issue. However, President Lakis and SLLF have made it clear that this is not the end of our involvement with this issue. Following the death of his son, Plumeri turned the same laser-like attention that had made him so successful in business to making sure that the the world did not forget his son, and that more people understand that addiction is a disease, not a moral failure.
Gary Mendell turned the same passion for success that drove him to great heights in the corporate world, to ensuring that fewer families suffered the tragedy that ensnared his own family. Sheriff Thorpe, with the assistance of Lt. Robert Chromik, Jr., shed a “tough on crime” image, and risked precious county and state tax dollars (as well as his career) to treat addicts and their families with understanding and compassion. Assemblyman Ron Kim has put his political capital on the line to see that no other person in New York dies while awaiting treatment.
Moved to Action. Tragedy is inevitable. Passion is enviable. However, each will come to nothing unless there is also action. Fortunately, all of the presenters at our meeting did not stop with passion, but turned that passion into action that is changing lives. SLLF too has committed to follow up on this issue, working with CASA to support states in their efforts, and to hold fundraising events in our home-base of Cape Cod. For more than twenty years now, Joe Plumeri has co-chaired CASA, putting his money and his efforts “where his mouth is,” speaking with passion around the country. Gary Mendell left his business to start Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization which raises money and awareness to fight drug addiction. Sheriff Lucas and Lt. Chromick created DART (Drug Abuse Response Team) to help addicts and their families find treatment, rather than be incarcerated. Assemblyman Kim, with the assistance of fellow NY Assemblyperson Linda Rosenthal, is working to pass legislation to understand how people “fall through the cracks,” and to prevent that from happening to others.
So, what does all of this mean for legislative leaders like yourself? All you need to do is look to the examples of Ron Kim and Linda Rosenthal, as well as Rep. Helene Keeley of Delaware and Rep. Jan Jones of Georgia, to see what you can do. Each of these legislators, whether touched by personal tragedy or motivated by the tragedy of others, has been moved to legislative action. Jan Jones supported legislation that made drug treatment a part of criminal justice reform in her state, and Helene Keeley has been the driving force behind several bills in Delaware that have increased access to treatment for those who are victims of addiction.
Don’t wait for tragedy to strike close to home, before you are moved to action. Let SLLF and CASA help you do something, in your state, today.