By Mark Powell
Turning Addiction Loss Into New Hope
Sometimes, something terrible leads to something beautiful. Just ask Don and Jeanne Keister. In December 2012, their son Tyler suffered an accidental heroin overdose. “As I stood in the hospital watching him on life support, I thought this would be an opportunity to help others,” Don recalls. “So others wouldn’t have to go through what we were going through, and also to help those in recovery and their families.”
Tyler didn’t survive. But his loss ignited a spark, and in February 2013 AtTAcK Addiction was born. “TAK” represents Tyler’s initials. The non-profit group educates the public about addiction, works to remove the stigma often associated with it, and supports both people in recovery and their loved ones.
There are no employees; it’s run entirely by volunteers. Many, like the Keisters, have lost a family member to the illness. That shared experience not only helps them work through their shared loss, but it also creates a bond that empowers them to help others. You can hear the passion and commitment in their voices as they talk about the group’s wide array of projects. In fact, name a topic and AtTAcK Addiction is involved in it. Housing? They have four recovery houses; some are free and others offer greatly reduced rent. Awareness? There’s a monthly Reality Tour, plus speaking engagements. Advocacy? The group advocated for and contributed to the passage of a Good Samaritan law that’s considered model legislation for other states. It also provides college scholarships, plus works with parents and athletic teams. Even AtTAcK Addiction’s one annual fundraising event, a 5K race, is a bright spot, bringing people together with more than 3,200 participants in 2019.
Community is very important to the group. “We hold meetings each month and we can have up to 70 people,” says board member Karl Fischer. “We provide all types of support, including grief counseling. They come because they want to see action, and we are action oriented. We have family members and people in recovery, too. It lets them know that they aren’t alone.”
AtTAcK Addiction’s impact is especially felt in changing public understanding of addiction and removing the stigma that’s too often attached to it. “It’s a disease of shame for the person misusing drugs and for the family,” Keister notes. “We don’t want people to be ashamed of their use or of their loved ones because it is a disease.”
“I sit in awe of all of these people,” says pharmacist and advisory board member Bill Lynch. “This group drives the substance use disorder agenda in Delaware.” And their voice is heard loud and clear in the state capitol. “I credit AtTAcK Addiction for helping me understand the lived experiences of how this disease impacts families, employers, and the community,” adds fellow advisory board member Rita Landgraf, who served as Delaware’s Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2009-2017. “The best policies are created by people who have been impacted the most. We need that voice.”
Besides reaching so many people around the First State, the group also helps each other heal. Says Dave Humes, who lost his son to addiction in May 2012, “We use the adopted phrase of ‘we, not I.’ There is chemistry in sports and there is chemistry in our organization. We draw on each other’s strengths.”
Tyler’s mother Jeanne puts it more simply: “These people are family. They have saved us.”
AtTAcK Addiction 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.