VERMILION — Rickie Jaworski was leaving work when he first heard.
His cousin was gone, found dead not far from where he purchased the lethal dose of heroin that killed him.
It was the fourth person Jaworski had lost to heroin since the start of the year. It was Jan. 13.
“I was angry. Just angry,” he said.
Last year, he knew at least 50 people lost to heroin. Desperate and angry, he didn’t know what to do. He got a posterboard and a marker, hand-lettered a sign and drove to the highest spot in town, at the crest of Liberty Avenue in front of the town’s lone Burger King.
Within hours of hearing the news about his cousin, Jaworski took up his spot on the sidewalk. For two hours, he held up his sign: TURN IN YOUR LOCAL DRUG DEALER. WAKE UP STAND UP END HEROIN
The next morning, he was back. Sometimes people driving by would honk. Sometimes they stopped to talk, share their stories, encourage him. Police stopped by to tell him to alter his signs a bit. “I wrote some offensive words at first to get attention,” he said. “So I’ve made some politically correct ones now.”
By Sunday, Jaworski wasn’t standing alone. About 25 people showed up with their own signs, brought by Facebooks posts and by Jaworski’s pastor, Josh Budka. Budka is senior pastor and youth group leader at Trinity Gospel Church in town. The man who died, Brian Baldwin, was his brother-in-law. His four kids are Budka’s nieces and nephews.
The vigil that started with Jaworski’s grief had become a small movement by Monday. Jaworski was in place at 8 a.m. and planned to stay there, despite the rain and dropping temperatures, until dark. Joining him was a “motley crew” of people trying to beat back the flood of death and addiction, one hand-lettered sign at a time.
Many have their own stories to tell, like Emma Stavole, a 14-year-old freshman at Vermilion High School. One morning last February she woke up to the news that her older brother, Cory Hammack, had died in the night. Stavole had no idea he was using heroin.
She remembers how he always made her laugh. These days she watches old home movies to see him again and carries him with her every day — his ashes are in a charm she wears on a chain around her neck. She also sees him in her niece, Hammack’s only child, born four weeks after he died.
Less than a year later, her best friend lost her father to heroin. The man overdosed on his daughter’s birthday. Stavole’s experiences led her to hold up her sign on Liberty Avenue.
“I love my brother, and I thought I would do this for him. He would do it for me,” she said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Might as well try to stop it from happening.”
Budka will preach at Baldwin’s funeral Wednesday. He also preached at Hammack’s. He used to lead a substance abuse-preventative program in the town school called SALT, for Saving A Life Together, until the program was cut last year, three years into the five-year program.
It wasn’t just Baldwin’s death that led to the group of concerned residents on the roadside this week — it’s seeing his hometown, where he “grew up partying,” riddled with the societal problems of addiction. Ohio is considered one of the epicenters of the modern drug epidemic; overdose deaths in both Lorain and Erie counties have skyrocketed in recent years. Vermilion straddles both. Budka and Jaworski, both in their 40s, said heroin is decimating people across generations and social circles.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a soccer mom or from the ghetto. I’ve cried my eyes out for kids. You get angry because they’re using, but once they pass, it’s different,” he said. “I know a lady who buried a friend because of heroin and a day later found out her cousin died from heroin. How do you fathom that?”
Jaworski and Budka believe there is a real need for the community to make a stand, but no one knows exactly what to do yet. Jaworski said he intends to be there as often as he can after work for now. They talk of helping even one person, just one, escape heroin.
The response received from strangers has been overwhelming. People have dropped off pizzas, hot drinks, hamburgers for 20 and homemade chicken noodle soup. Some of those bringing food or coffee have all the hallmarks of active addiction, Jaworski said. Some people have given them names of dealers because they are too nervous to turn them in themselves, or shared stories about what they’re seeing in their neighborhoods. Facebook videos have hit 8,000 views in just hours.
“If something doesn’t change, how many more will there be? I don’t want to bury 100 this year,” Jaworski said. “I’m just tired of funerals.”
Contact Rini Jeffers at firstname.lastname@example.org.