Naperville nonprofit puts faith in parents to stem heroin's tide
Diane Overgard has faith in parents.
There's something about the unconditional love of a father or a mother that has the ability to carry a child through anything, she says.
Even heroin addiction.
"We are optimistic that families have the power to help their child make the right decision," said Overgard, project manager of ParentsMatterToo, a nonprofit education and support group that launched last year in Naperville.
An executive life coach who has written two books on faith and families, Overgard says her optimism is rooted in the belief that parents can be a child's best guide, if only they learn how.
"If we can create that environment within families to talk to kids in a way that creates a safety zone, where kids are not inclined to hide what's going on that's really scary but know their parent is their No. 1 resource they need to share this information with -- that's when there will be a difference," Overgard said.
ParentsMatterToo is striving to give parents the tools to establish that environment, to foster open communication with their children, and to mold, to motivate, to nurture and to nudge their young along the best possible paths in life. Those tools come in the form of parent support groups called conversation circles and in online videos in which experts answer parent questions about drug use and other teenage problems.
Since ParentsMatterToo got started in October 2013, using $24,150 the Naperville City Council gave the nonprofit KidsMatter to establish a parent-focused initiative, Overgard says parents are beginning to find the organization's resources. Now she hopes they'll use the parent support groups, Web links and expert videos to carry their children around heroin addiction -- not through it.
Circles of support
Individual parents might not know how their power works -- how to steer a child clear of the mental health pitfalls, the negative influences, the addictive behaviors, the simple teenage experimentations that lead young people down the often one-way street of heroin abuse.
But Overgard has faith in the ability of parents to help one another. What one parent learned the hard way can become a strategy in another parent's playbook. All it takes is a connection. And Overgard is good at connections.
ParentsMatterToo began in the spring offering Parent Conversation Circles, gatherings that allow parents to connect with others who are raising kids of a similar age and discuss whatever their families are experiencing, be it the pressures of an overbooked schedule or the slippery slope of experimentation with marijuana or pain pills.
The circles meet weekly for at least three sessions with a facilitator who leads conversations about family values, shares ways to reach children no matter their personality and offers guidance on how to form a strong child/family relationship. The circles can continue meeting for more sessions, but only the first three have set lesson plans.
"I'm not there as a professional counselor," said Beth Sack, a conversation circle facilitator who also is manager of addiction services for Linden Oaks at Edward Hospital in Naperville. "But it definitely helps having that background."
One of the circles that met this year found a shared concern about cybercrime and how to monitor children's Internet use. Parents in another group were surprised prescription drug abuse can be a "huge factor" in the likelihood that a teen will try heroin.
Feedback about these circles has been nothing but positive, Overgard said.
"The ability to get input from others about issues I'm dealing with currently was helpful," parent participant Julie Parker wrote in a survey.
But the trick is getting the word out. Overgard said only about 70 Naperville-area parents have participated in the circles so far. More can join when the next round launches in January.
The circles don't spend all their time discussing heroin. But they're one way to start building the power within parents, and the connections among parents, to address the issue family by family.
"I'm really encouraged to see the relationships that are being built," Overgard said.
Experts on video
When parents run out of expertise to help each other, that's when trained experts -- such as counselors, doctors and police chiefs -- step in.
The ParentsMatterToo website features more than 60 videos in which experts answer questions from local parents.
"How do I know if my kid is on drugs?"
"My teen says everyone is using. Is this true?"
"Is using opium not as bad as using heroin?"
"When is it time for an out-of-home therapeutic program?"
All parents need is a computer to hear Naperville-area experts "providing the best resources for parents," Overgard says.
"When parents have questions and they don't know where to go, they're actually finding our website like we'd hoped," she said.
Naperville police also are directing residents to ParentsMatterToo and promoting conversation circles as meetings where "parents can come together and problem-solve," Chief Robert Marshall said.
Ask Overgard how to stem the spread of suburban heroin use and her answer is simpler than most.
Many leaders talk about the need for collaborative efforts in drug prevention, education, law enforcement and treatment. Some will say something vague about how the heroin problem will end when using the drug no longer is seen as "cool."
But Overgard has an answer she has more faith in.
"We believe there is one answer and it's the parents," she said. "We all need one person in our life who stands by us no matter what we do, and parents can be it."
• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries
PART 5Heroin has taken hold in the suburbs and turning a blind eye to it isn't acceptable anymore. In an occasional series, the Daily Herald examines those the problem affects and those who are fighting it. Today, we take a look through the eyes of Diane Overgard, who runs a nonprofit group formed to give parents tools to help their children avoid or overcome heroin.