In May of 2011, Will County Executive Larry Walsh attended a rally in Homer Glen organized by two fathers who lost their sons to heroin abuse. As Executive Walsh listened to the stories told by Bryan Kirk and John Roberts, founders of the HERO Group (Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization), he knew Will County government had the capacity to help fight this growing problem.
“What we have is a public health crisis,” Walsh said. “And who better to fight this crisis than the Will County Health Department. We have one of the finest health departments in the country and we are well equipped to begin the fight against this terrible drug.”
Executive Walsh formed a heroin prevention task force the following week comprised of leaders of the county’s health department, the regional office of education, the state’s attorney, and the sheriff department to begin exploring a plan to educate the public about the dangers of heroin. The group chose a name, Will County HELPS (heroin education leads to preventative solutions), and a plan which included public service announcements, community presentations, and the development of a heroin prevention education curriculum for Will County schools.
In 2012, the first community forum Hero Helps was held on April 13 at Lewis University. More than 400 people attended with an interest in learning more about this issue of heroin.
County officials learned the Robert Crown Center for Health Education was in the process of creating a heroin prevention initiative for teachers. A partnership was forged to bring this initiative to the students of Will County. Robert Crown selected a group of two high schools, Joliet Township High Schools, and a feeder junior high school, Troy Middle School, as a test environment for this initiative. The pilot program began in the spring semester of 2013. The future goal is to roll out this heroin initiative to all schools in Will County.
In the spring of 2013, Hero Helps hosted its second community forum which drew more than 700 people from across the region. We were honored to have the Deputy Director from the Office of National Drug Control Michael Botticelli as our keynote speaker.
In May of 2014, the third annual Hero Helps Community Summit was held in Romeoville, IL. George DeTella from the DuPage Health Department outlined the DuPage Narcan Program which was implemented in the fall of 2013. Again the event drew hundreds of residents looking for answers to the continuing problem of heroin addiction.
Will County Coroner Pat O’Neil began tracking heroin overdose deaths in 1999 when there were six reported overdose deaths. Prior to that, heroin overdose deaths were extremely rare. He began to notice a trend of increasing numbers jumping from five cases in 2000 to 13 cases in 2001. These numbers continued to increase each year with a large jump from 17 cases in 2008 to 29 cases in 2009. The trend decreased a bit with 26 overdose deaths in 2010 but then increased again in 2011 to 30 overdose deaths 53 heroin overdose deaths in 2012. Will County saw a significant decrease in the number of heroin overdose deaths in 2013 – 38, nearly a 30 percent decrease. This reduction is credited to an expanded public awareness campaign and the implementation of a heroin prevention curriculum in three Will County schools. We are working to expand this curriculum into another school district. We are also working to implement the Will County Narcan Distribution Program which will train our police officers to use this life-saving drug. We will not rest until we have driven heroin out of Will County.