Jessica Santini's heart broke all over again as she addressed the students at Stevenson High School, where she had graduated a dozen years earlier.
"I'm six months brotherless," the Buffalo Grove woman said, opening the story of the life of addiction and March 2015 death by heroin overdose of her younger sibling Mikey at the age of 25.
Santini's advocacy for substance abuse treatment during the past 17 months -- and her longer-running work with autistic children -- has earned her Roosevelt University's prestigious Matthew Freeman Social Justice Award.
The current psychology student said she was incredibly moved to be recognized as a champion for social justice -- a central pillar of Roosevelt's educational philosophy.
"I don't look at it as work that I'm doing; I just look at it as following my heart," Santini said.
Following her heart has led Santini to work with Arlington Heights-based Live4Lali, which battles substance abuse, and Impacting Autism LLC, an Inverness-based organization that advocates for families with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities.
Santini's interest in working with autistic children began gradually with just one preschooler in her hometown. The boy was on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum, but she believed she was able to reach him. Now in the third grade, he's been moving away from the need for additional classroom support.
"I got him to do a lot of firsts," Santini said.
Her advocacy for those suffering from substance abuse remains a painful experience that seems unlikely ever to become a mere memory. The pain began for her while living with a younger brother whose substance abuse started in high school and only intensified after his death.
Six months later she spoke of her experience to students at her former high school.
What they might not have known without her talk -- what she firmly believes her brother didn't know -- is how easily experimenting with pain pills can lead to a deadly addiction to opiates. "These are things you don't read about in a book," Santini said.
Still new to the experience of public speaking, she was thankful for the feedback she quickly received -- some students hugged her and thanked her after her talk, and one went out of his way to express his gratitude when he spotted her at the public library some time afterward.
Linn Bourgeau, an administrative clerk at Roosevelt's Schaumburg campus, nominated Santini for the Matthew Freeman Award.
"The students always inspire me, but she is someone who just lives the mission of Roosevelt University," Bourgeau said. "Not everyone steps outside of themselves as she does."
The award honors the memory of Matthew Freeman, who died a decade ago while still a student at Roosevelt.
Sociology professor Heather Dalmage, who leads Roosevelt's Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation that gives the award, said Santini was the clear choice among this year's nominees.
"(Freeman) was a kind and committed social justice student," Dalmage said. "I saw a lot of Matthew Freeman in her."