Reed Hruby was a vibrant, loving, talented young man who had a passion for life, family members say.
But he also struggled for years with an addiction to heroin that eventually cost him everything. The northwest Indiana man was 24 when he died from an overdose of the drug in July 2008.
"Reed's death changed our lives," said Brenda Hruby Giesel of Naperville, Reed's aunt. "Heroin addiction doesn't just affect the addict. It rips the fabric of the entire family."
Now Reed's grandparents -- Roger and Nadeane Hruby of Burr Ridge -- are transforming their family's tragedy into an effort to raise public awareness about heroin use and addiction among young people. The couple has donated $340,000 to the Robert Crown Center for Health Education to establish one the nation's first education and prevention efforts focused exclusively on heroin.
On Monday, officials with the Hinsdale-based center announced the program, which is being developed with the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy and the Reed Hruby Foundation. They said the goal is to stop the growing trend of heroin use and death across the Chicago area and the nation.
"Chicago ranks among the worst in the nation for heroin use," said Kathleen M. Burke, CEO of the Robert Crown Center. "And the problem here in the suburbs is increasing at an alarming rate."
A Roosevelt University study last summer found that heroin use among teens in the collar counties increased 46 percent in the course of a year. Death by heroin was up 130 percent in nine years in Lake County, rose 150 percent in three years in McHenry County, and doubled in two years in Will County.
Burke also quoted drug experts who say heroin seizures in DuPage County skyrocketed by nearly 700 percent last year.
"Heroin addiction and deaths are increasing rapidly throughout the state ... especially in the suburbs," said Kathie Kane-Willis, one of the authors of the Roosevelt University report. She also is the co-founder and director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, a research institute housed at the university.
Kane-Willis worked with Robert Crown Center educators on a three-year strategy to develop and implement a heroin use prevention program, officials said.
The first year of the initiative, which already has started, is devoted to research that includes interviewing 18- to 29-year-old heroin users living in the suburbs. The second year will be spent on content development. During the final year, Robert Crown Center educators will launch the education strategy, evaluate its effectiveness and submit it for peer review.
"The project is unique because the research we are conducting on the use and abuse of heroin will help us identify what factors influence young people to try heroin in order to prevent their inevitable addiction and death," Burke said.
Kane-Willis said there is a "desperate need" for research and prevention, which are the keys to reducing heroin addiction and deaths. She said there are no prevention programs in the country that focus exclusively on heroin.
"We need a health education approach that gives young people all the information they need to make the choice about not using heroin," Kane-Willis said. "We believe this work, this research -- this program that will develop -- will serve as a model for the country. We believe this work will save lives."
Families who have suffered through a heroin addiction are encouraged to help the research by sharing their stories via email at email@example.com.
Interested members of the community also are asked to visit the center's website or email firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer, serve on Heroin Prevention Project advisory boards or donate.
Meanwhile, Hruby Giesel said her family contacted the Robert Crown Center because they wanted a partner who can reach "as many children, parents and community members as possible." Annually nearly 90,000 young people from eight counties take part in the center's programs.
"Like many families, we had no idea how prevalent and dangerous the heroin problem is in our community. But we know that now," Hruby Giesel said. "If we don't stop this dangerous trend, our children will die."