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updated: 11/20/2011 9:18 AM

Geneva woman has been to 100 funerals for heroin victims

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  • Lea Minalga, who runs the Hearts of Hope organization, stands in front of the Hultgren Funeral Home in Wheaton before attending a wake Tuesday. She has attended more than 100 funerals in 10 years for suburban people who have died of drug overdoses.

       Lea Minalga, who runs the Hearts of Hope organization, stands in front of the Hultgren Funeral Home in Wheaton before attending a wake Tuesday. She has attended more than 100 funerals in 10 years for suburban people who have died of drug overdoses.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

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Lea Minalga didn't know Paul Grogan, the 26-year-old Glendale Heights man who died of a heroin overdose last week, but she went to his wake anyway.

In the past 10 years, Minalga estimates she's been to more than 100 funerals in the West and Northwest suburbs -- all for young people who overdosed on drugs, mostly heroin. Many of them were teenagers.

"Sadly, I know most of them," said Minalga, of Geneva, a drug counselor and founder of Hearts of Hope, a nonprofit group that supports local families dealing with drug addiction.

She created the group after her own son's heroin battle, when she realized there were so many other suburban families struggling with the same problems.

At Grogan's wake, Minalga walked in by herself and signed the guest book, writing down the Hearts of Hope phone number. Then she stood in the back of the room for a few minutes, watching people trickle in. A grieving young woman hovered over the open casket. "A sister?" she wondered silently. "A girlfriend?"

Eventually, Minalga approached the casket and looked down at Grogan. He looked so young and healthy, she thought, as if he might open his eyes and sit up at any moment.

A deep sadness came over her as she reflected on how heroin has claimed the life of yet another young person in the community. She murmured an "Our Father" and prayed that God grants him peace.

Heroin is one of the deadliest drugs now plaguing the suburbs. Last week, a 37-year-old woman died of a heroin overdose in Carol Stream, and three people were charged in connection with her death. Last month, in separate incidents, a 15-year-old Vernon Hills girl, a 38-year-old Carol Stream man and a 37-year-old Prospect Heights woman who had a 6-year-old child all died of heroin overdoses.

There have been 65 heroin deaths in the suburbs so far this year, according to county coroners' offices, and that number doesn't include suburban Cook County (the county is a year behind on its reporting and doesn't break down the cause of death by drug, the medical examiner said).

"Eighteen people have died (of heroin overdoses) in DuPage County this year. If we said 18 people died of swine flu, people would be up in arms," said state Rep. Patti Bellock of Westmont, who during a recent legislative session called the suburbs "the heroin capitol of the U.S."

Yet when Bellock talks to people about the heroin problem in the suburbs, she says their response is usually, "What heroin problem?"

"I don't know if it's getting better or worse, but I think this is one of the biggest problems around," said Bellock, who recently helped pass a law that grants limited immunity from prosecution to anyone who calls 911 to report an overdose.

Heroin use spiked in the suburbs more than a decade ago, and it's been a constant scourge ever since. The problem's not going away, and some argue it's getting worse.

Aside from the fatalities, there also are countless nonfatal heroin overdoses, overstretched publicly funded rehab centers and recurring headlines about local arrests for possessing or dealing the drug, which experts say is so addictive, it's capable of making a first-time user into an addict.

"We're getting hit really hard," Minalga said.

A report, "Understanding Suburban Heroin Use," released last month by the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale, shed some light on the subject. It found many people who try heroin are unaware of its dangers, signaling a need for more education. It also showed that many people who use heroin had a prior addiction to prescription pain killers, such as OxyContin or Vicodin.

"(Heroin) is cheaper than pizza and can be delivered to your door," Minalga said. "You don't even have to go to the West Side to get it anymore."

Grogan's mother, Sue, agreed.

"It's everywhere out here," she said. "It's too easy to get -- $20, and you're high."

Grogan said her son Paul had a long and painful struggle with heroin addiction and had been in and out of jail and treatment for the past few years. While he had been doing well in recent weeks while waiting for a spot to open in a rehab facility, his sister found him dead in the bathroom Nov. 11.

"I don't know what happened," Sue Grogan said. "I hope by talking about this it will open peoples' eyes ... and that some good can come of all this."

Minalga has a similar wish. She goes to funerals of heroin overdose victims to provide families with support but also to keep focused on her mission to educate people of the dangers of drugs and addiction.

The funerals also remind her how lucky she is that her son managed to get clean and is now starting to rebuild his life. With a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I attitude, she comforts and grieves with families who have lost loved ones to heroin addiction.

"When you meet these people, there's an interesting bond. You don't stand around and talk about the weather. You get right into it," she said. "(The funerals) have all had a different effect on me. What stands out is the brokenness of the parents. They're either zombies, or there's an animal woundedness in their faces. It's just so sad."

Typically, when Minalga is at a wake and doesn't know the deceased, she will simply sign the guest book with the Hearts of Hope phone number, say a prayer and leave. At Grogan's wake, however, she went up to Grogan's father, Larry, and introduced herself, telling him about her own son's struggles and her organization. He told her he'd like to talk to her next week, after the funeral.

Minalga says that reaction is common, and she's never once been asked to leave.

"There's a shared grief," she said. "When people are hurting, they need to connect with other hurting people."

As she educates families about addiction, she says she's learned that this generation of young people faces immense pressure -- more so than previous generations -- and it's led to more drug addiction, depression and suicide. To understand this pressure, she recommends watching the documentary "Race to Nowhere," which is being screened Nov. 28 in Downers Grove and Dec. 8 in Naperville and Evanston. Details are at racetonowhere.com.

To learn more about heroin, Bellock recommends the Foundation for a Drug-Free World's video and booklet, "The Truth About Heroin," which can be viewed at www.drugfreeworld.org/#/documentaries/truth-about-drugs-documentary-heroin.

"You don't have to die from this to have it ruin your life. (Heroin) steals your future from you. You'll wake up one morning and nothing is the same," Minalga said. "Help's available and treatment works, but prevention works, too."

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