Mike Schofield wasn’t all that surprised to encounter heroin in parts of Chicago while on emergency calls in the 1980s. But he didn’t expect to see them as frequently as he did about two years ago, working as a fire chief in Homer Glen and Orland Park.
The overdoses had an added disturbing factor that Schofield also didn’t expect.
“To see the resurgence here, and to see it targeted at young kids in high school, that’s what took me by surprise,” said Schofield, fire chief of the Homer Township Fire District and battalion chief with the Orland Fire Protection District. “I had no clue we had an issue until we had multiple fatalities.”
From what Schofield learned, heroin was affecting teens so much because the pushers were operating near schools, willing to give out free samples to hook a new customer.
“It takes an average of six stays in rehab to kick heroin,” Schofield said. “But before that can even happen, parents miss it because these kids are functioning. They are getting good grades, and still showing up for classes.”
Schofield soon realized the feeling he felt as he went on these overdose calls ought to be conveyed to others, especially people who aren’t aware how quickly heroin and other substance use can lead to death.
If students heard the 911 calls when someone their age died from drug or alcohol use, or spoke to a parent who lost a child to drugs, maybe they would make more informed choices, Schofield said.
“The point was proper decision making,” he said. “It wasn’t just heroin. We have car accidents with kids texting. And alcohol. There didn’t seem to be a program that really illustrated the consequences of all of these.”
Schofield recruited a few people who would have no problem painting a vivid picture for students of how quickly a person’s life can change, and end, by abusing drugs and alcohol.
Homer Glen resident Brian Kirk found his son dead of a heroin overdose. Recent Lockport Township High School graduate Lisa Bufka lost a friend to heroin as well.
Tami O’Brien, from Homer Glen, also has spoken at Blink of an Eye events. Her son Jason Casper is still alive, though both are living with a serious consequence.
When Tami O’Brien starts talking to people about the harms of drunk driving, she often shows those assembled a picture of her son at five years old, wearing a Chicago Police hat.
“He had wanted to be a police officer since that age,” O’Brien said. “I also show pictures of him graduating from the police academy. And then later I show pictures from the crash.”
On Feb. 12, 2005, Jason Casper drove through a red light at the Harlem Avenue and 159th Street intersection, and struck another car, killing two Carl Sandburg High School students. His blood-alcohol level was reported at twice the legal limit.
Casper pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
O’Brien also shows students pictures of Jason’s mug shot.
“I tell kids every time I speak ‘think of your mom,’” O’Brien said. “It can happen to good people. And this is a part of us for the rest of our lives.”
She started speaking out against drunk driving shortly after Casper was incarcerated, a form of proactive therapy, she said.
Often the teens she speaks to are so stunned by her presentation a “pin drop could be heard,” she said. Attendees become especially quiet when they see pictures taken from the crash.
“If I can get to one kid out there, I’ve done my job,” O’Brien said.
Casper, who will be eligible for parole in about another two years, supports his mother in speaking and plans to do the same when he is released.
“He went out that night and didn’t intend to kill anyone,” O’Brien said. “That’s why it’s called In the Blink of an Eye.”
Silence to Tears
The point of a program that is hard hitting, and cuts right to some serious realities, is to get past common teen reactions to warnings.
“If I’m a teen and someone, especially an adult, tells me not to do something, I’m probably just going to blow them off,” said Schofield, a father of six. “But if you hear a 911 call, and meet the parents of a high school kid that died, one who was your age, then the reaction changes.”
The program offers another dynamic unique to anti-drug and-alcohol use messages: input from teens who choose not to drink or take drugs.
“They can relate directly to the kids,” Schofield said. “They know exactly what it’s like to see their friends doing drugs.”
While attendees to Blink of an Eye might be silent at first, by the end, many have cried and either hugged the speakers or shook their hands.
The first In the Blink of an Eye event was held at Carl Sandburg High School about two years ago. Since then, it has been incorporated into the school’s Operation Snowball effort. Events are tentatively scheduled in 2012 in Oak Park and Frankfort, though they are still trying to get In the Blink of an Eye into Lockport Township High School. Administrators from both campuses did not return messages left about the program.
The next step might be taking the message to a younger age group.
“You go through life seeing bad things happen and you think I wish I could do something,” Schofield said. “The more I learn about heroin and drugs, the more I want to bring our program to 7th and 8th grades. That way they’d be exposed to what can happen before even stepping foot in high school.”
Chief Schofield is always looking for more people with stories to share about drug and alcohol use forever altering lives. Contact him at email@example.com