By Mark Powell
Saving Your Son
It starts with a simple sentence: “Let me tell you about Tyler.”
Tyler was an exceptional young man whose brief life became the inspiration for Hope United. And you can’t fully know the group’s mission without understanding Tyler, his parents’ pledge to redeem his death from a heroin overdose, and their commitment to fighting for the next family.
Shelly and Travis Bornstein share stories about a great golfer and an avid athlete, one so talented he received both academic and athletic scholarships to college. He became a bodybuilder and earned the runner-up spot as the Natural Junior Mr. Ohio. A caring, compassionate young man who looked you in the eye when he talked to you, whose smile brightened up a room, and who bristled when he saw someone being treated unfairly.
Details stream straight from the Bornsteins’ hearts. Because
Tyler was their son. Tyler also struggled with opioid addiction.
“He never gave up on things and he really wanted to beat his addiction,” Shelly says. “He could do anything, but that just shows you how severe his addiction was.”
Tyler’s parents believe his addiction started with a prescription for opioids after two surgeries for broken bones, one at age 11 and another at age 18. Tyler began to misuse the pills and eventually treated the pain of withdrawal with heroin. The five years after high school were a cycle of relapse and recovery.
By the summer of 2014 Tyler was ready for help once again. But there was a three week waiting list for treatment. And on September 28th he used heroin with an acquaintance. When Tyler overdosed, his companion left him in a vacant lot. His body was discovered the next day. He was 23 years old.
Somehow, amid the deepest grief any parent can experience, the Bornsteins made an important decision. They resolved that Tyler’s death would not be in vain; it would serve as a catalyst to help those with an addiction find recovery. “I had to educate myself,”
Travis recalls. “I thought addiction was a moral failing. I thought it was something I did, like I was a failure.” After hearing the U.S. Surgeon General talk about addiction as a disease like cancer or diabetes, Travis says, “I am no longer embarrassed of my son. He is my hero to have accomplished so much with such a gut-wrenching disease. I’m only embarrassed that I was the fool.” Travis has worked for the Teamsters for 30 years. In 2016, at their national convention, they asked Travis to speak. He told them, “As union leaders, we are community leaders and this is affecting our community.” He shared his story, pouring his heart out to 5,000 teamsters from all around the country. After he was done, people pledged $5,000 here, $10,000 there. This went on for an hour and 45 minutes. In total, they raised over $1 million for their new organization.
They directed all their energy into what the new organization would look like. First called Breaking Barriers – Hope is Alive, it was eventually rebranded as Hope United. It’s based on three pillars:
Education: The Bornsteins speak in schools, churches, community events, safety meetings, to both companies and labor organizations about opioid addiction, with the goal of ending stigma.
Support: The group sponsors two support groups. The Well is for families who’ve lost a loved one to addiction. Love Bears All is for children who’ve lost a family member or parent to addiction. (Hand-stuffed teddy bears are created by people directly impacted by addiction and are dressed in a “Love Bears All” tee-shirt. Each is accompanied by a handwritten note and brochure with recommended resources to help children cope.)
Recovery: The group is planning the first-ever relapse prevention and wellness center in Akron to be called Tyler’s Redemption Place. Initially, the Bornsteins planned to build it on the very lot where Tyler was left to die; since that time, a beautiful spot was donated to Hope United for the facility. The goal is to have it open by September 28, 2020, the sixth anniversary of Tyler’s death. The approach is treating the whole person, including the trauma or pain that is the root cause of an addiction, not just the substance. Tyler’s Redemption Place will include a 1-year program of relapse prevention working with clinicians; a recovery community space for recreation and various activities; a café; plus, four or five counseling rooms. “People don’t heal in isolation,” Travis notes. “They heal in community.”
“We’re taking the worst thing that happened to us and trying to make something good come out of it,” Shelly says.
And her husband Travis adds, it starts with forgiveness. “I’ve learned I have to forgive a whole lot of people for me to recover and move forward: guys like the drug dealer, the person who dumped my son in a vacant lot like a piece of trash, the doctor who prescribed opiates to a kid. But most of all, myself.”
Hope United was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.