Thea Froehling and Dana Joseph will meet Tim Ryan face-to-face for the first time this weekend, but they already share a common bond.
All three know they must channel their grief into something positive for the good of others.
So after Ryan, a former heroin addict, lost his oldest son to an overdose, the father started a Naperville nonprofit group, A Man in Recovery Foundation, to try to keep other families from experiencing his tragedy.
One of those families reached out to Ryan to help Dennis Raber start an addiction treatment program. Raber would eventually get sober, move into his own apartment, have a girlfriend and take up yoga and meditation.
He had spent about a year and a half in sobriety when he thought he could use one more time. Shortly before Valentine's Day, he died from a heroin overdose.
Froehling knew about his death, but not that path to sobriety, when she reached out to his parents -- her friends and high school sweethearts from their class of 1978 -- with an idea to honor Raber's memory.
"My heart was just broken for my friends who lost a son who was 29 years old," the Arlington Heights mom said.
Mark and Kathy Raber quickly embraced Froehling's request. With their blessing, she's paying tribute to their son, a Lockport native, with a pickleball tournament that will raise funds for Ryan's foundation over two days of play this weekend in the Wheeling Park District Community Recreation Center.
"They thank Tim Ryan for him giving their son back to him, for the year and a half that he was sober," Froehling said. "That struck me."
Froehling organized the two-day tournament with Joseph, whose nephew, Devin Berlin, a 24-year-old from Mississippi, died from an overdose. They called the inaugural event, "Dink for Hope," as a nod to the dink shot in pickleball and the title of Ryan's 2017 book, "From Dope to Hope: A Man In Recovery."
"If they have a heartbeat, they have hope," Ryan said of his mantra. "Never ever give up on somebody."
He commended the Raber family and the tournament organizers for turning their loss "into a positive," addressing the stigma associated the disease and supporting the foundation, which covers the costs of treatment and sober home programs for recovering addicts without insurance and offers referrals, among other means of support.
When he started the nonprofit more than three years ago, it was never his intention to raise money through death. But many families have chosen to immortalize their loved ones with such memorials that also are aimed at awareness.
So Ryan will speak at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, and his foundation will set up a resource table during the indoor tournament. Froehling and Joseph also will display memory boards with pictures of Raber and Berlin.
"There's healing in it and not coming from a martyr or a victim of it, but sharing the story," Froehling said. "I think it gives healing power to Mark and Kathy that they get to share it. It takes the burden off them."
Froehling and Joseph, a playing partner from Palatine, are headed to the U.S. Open Pickleball Championship in Florida starting April 21. Did they have any doubts about planning a new event so close to competing in the pinnacle of their sport?
"That didn't even cross my mind," Froehling said.
The organizers will donate the net proceeds from the event after paying costs to stage it. They're raising funds through player registration and prize raffles. They're also asking spectators to make a $5 donation.
More than 90 teams are registered to play -- a "record-breaker" for tournaments that are usually held at the park district, Froehling said. Games begin 3 p.m. Saturday and resume 8 a.m. Sunday.
The Rabers, Froehling's classmates from Reavis High School in Burbank, plan to be there on Sunday. They're "putting one foot in front of the other right now," Froehling said, but they also have hope that they can help other families struggling with addiction.
"They're grateful for the opportunity to hopefully save some other children and families from some of the misery that comes from it, the devastation," she said.