MERIDEN — After the arrest of her son in what police called the city’s largest heroin seizure, Susan Willette has found a way to help other parents and loved ones of those struggling with addiction.
It’s been almost a year and a half since police raided her Meetinghouse Village home and arrested her son Jonathan Willette, 26, after finding 4,619 bags of heroin weighing about 2.4 pounds. Two weeks later, her younger son Christoper Willette overdosed, and David and Susan Willette felt their world had imploded.
While dealing with Jonathan Willette’s arrest and Christopher Willette’s overdose, Susan Willette attended her oldest son’s wedding, which took place despite the absence of the two best men.
She also learned the state had few resources and the judicial system had few treatments options available to address the causes of addiction. She vowed to do something about it and holds her head higher these days.
“I thank God every day, they survived,” Susan Willette said. “When you’re addicted, you make poor choices.”
During the court proceedings, Susan Willette tried to have Jonathan Willette enter treatment instead of jail because he had no prior record. But the prosecutor held firm on prison time because of the amount of drugs and money seized.
She talks to Jonathan Willette on the phone daily and the couple visits him in prison on the weekends.
“I spoke with my son yesterday,” Susan Willette said. “He hopes to one day help people who struggle with substance abuse disorder so that no other family has to go through this.”
Susan Willette sent Christopher to a rehabilitation center in Florida at a co-pay cost of $19,000 because there were no beds available in Connecticut. Her private insurance only covered 30 days, but she believes he and other addicts need at least 90 days.
She attended a substance abuse presentation in October 2015 for students at a local high school and was shocked to find only 50 parents attended an evening presentation.
Willette said when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy “started cutting the funding to mental health and substance abuse, other moms and I were saying ‘our kids are dying at an alarming rate, what do we want to do?’”
She testified before the General Assembly last year on a law that would place a seven-day cap on opioid prescriptions and another requiring first responders to carry naloxone. The drug is used to counter the effects of opioid and heroin overdoses.
Susan Willette also attended meetings with drug advocacy groups in other towns and organized a rally at Hubbard Park called The Roadway of Hope.
Her goal was to establish a union of groups from smaller towns to form one voice to advocate for addicts and their families.
“It was an amazing day,” she said. “We collected food and we did raise funds. But our goal was to let people know people cared, show people there was hope.”
Nicole Steeves, a classmate of Jonathan Willette, read about his arrest n the newspaper.
“At the time, my youngest brother was struggling with his own addiction,” Steeves said. “Sue’s heart for her son, her passion for bringing awareness to substance abuse disorder, and her drive to end the stigma surrounding substance abuse disorder mirrored my own feelings — even though I hadn’t yet actualized a way to bring about change on my own.”
Steeves attended a meeting of the Meriden Healthy Youth Coalition and helped Susan Willette establish The Roadway of Hope CT’s 501(c)3 status and has helped organize a Bowl-A-Thon this weekend and build a website, set to launch this spring.
The Roadway of Hope CT now has six board members and a roster of volunteers.
“We want to provide resources, of course, but we also want to give the community an outlet for something that seems huge and insurmountable,” Steeves said. “If we join up and link arms, we can walk the roadway together.”
The group hopes to raise awareness and funds statewide to support addiction-related services. It also wants to help cover costs for overwhelmed family members.
“I’m proud of it,” said Sue’s husband, David Willette, who is on The Roadway for Hope board of directors. “People don’t have to hide. Everybody knows somebody. We’re all affected by it.”
For instance, if parents need a plane ticket for a child or to visit their child in rehabilitation, The Roadway of Hope could cover some of the costs.
It also hopes to start a scholarship fund for an addict doing well in recovery or siblings of substance abuse victims.
“We want to be one voice, a statewide voice,” Steeves said. “We want to advocate and educate because you can’t put a Band-aid on it.”
Jonathan and Christopher Willette were both stricken with injuries as teenagers that were treated with painkillers and became addicted. Jonathan Willette had a personality disorder and began self-medicating as a pre-teenager.
Since his overdose and treatment, Christopher Willette is succeeding at recovery and attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and working full-time.
Jonathan Willette stopped doing drugs cold turkey in a jail cell and has yet to receive addiction or psychiatric treatment, his mother said.
“Where there is breath there is hope,” Susan Willette said. “I believe in boundaries and tough love. You can’t live with drugs and the chaos because it will destroy you and your family. But I don’t think you can give up on them. No one asks to be an addict.”
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