Hawthorn Woods mom finds healing in helping others
When Ciri Stom lost her 18-year-old son Jeremy to a heroin overdose in 2009, her world collapsed.
"I would cry and say there's nothing worse. What else can happen that could be worse?" Stom said. "Little did I know."
Just one year later, Stom lost a second son to addiction.
"Losing one child is horrific -- two you can barely breathe," she said.
Like so many suburban families, the Stoms of Hawthorn Woods learned heroin addiction doesn't discriminate by ZIP code. And there's no immunity for kids who play in the high school band, run track or come from a loving family.
"Based on what I've lived through, any kid can be at risk," Stom said.
Growing up, the Stom boys and their sister, Sayra, were like other kids in their affluent neighborhood. There were soccer practices, swim meets and music lessons.
"We had a house with two parents. I was a stay-at-home mom. I was involved in school activities and all the things you think will keep your kids from dabbling in drugs," she said.
Yet, by the end of Jeremy's freshman year at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, he was experimenting with marijuana and pills. The Stoms got him treatment, but the spiral of addiction had begun. By his junior year, Jeremy was using heroin.
The Stoms tried everything to save their son. Expensive rehab programs followed by hope followed by relapse. "It's relapse and recovery … relapse and recovery. That's the pattern of the disease," she said.
In desperation, the Stoms sent their son to a therapeutic wilderness program in Colorado. Jeremy came back a new person.
"We were so full of hope. He was thriving," Stom said.
Jeremy got a job and decided to join the Air Force. He was just three weeks away from boot camp when he overdosed.
The Stoms don't know what the trigger was or exactly what happened that night. They'll probably never know.
But hoping to channel their grief into something positive, the family decided to establish a foundation in Jeremy's memory. It was Jeremy's older brother, Jean, who ultimately shaped the foundation's mission.
"He said, 'Let's remember the good -- not the bad. Let's focus on what Jeremy loved,'" Stom said.
The family decided the Jeremy Stom Remembrance Foundation would combat addiction by giving underfunded kids the chance to attend residential sports camps, music programs or other recreational activities that could enrich their lives.
"We decided to focus on empowering kids through positive experiences," said Sayra Stom, Jeremy's sister. "We look at it as prevention at its earliest stage," she said. And the foundation's message would be "experience hope."
But even as the Stoms began planning the foundation in their youngest son's memory, they feared for their eldest son.
Jean had served in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division during the early days of the Iraq War, and when he returned home in 2004, Stom said he was never the same.
"Jean was someone who never really liked alcohol, but he came back and started drinking," she said. Then came the drugs.
Recognizing he needed help after his brother's death, Jean checked himself into an eight-month inpatient rehab program through the VA hospital. Like Jeremy, he seemed to be doing well when he came home, Stom said.
She believes the anniversary of Jeremy's death on April 25, followed by what would have been Jeremy's 20th birthday a few days later, triggered Jean's relapse. On May 5, 2010, Jean overdosed and they lost him, too.
For a year, Stom didn't sleep.
"You have terrible thoughts. There's no will to live when you lose a child," she said.
It was their daughter, Sayra, who kept Stom and her husband, Scott, alive.
"She gave us a reason to live."
Family, neighbors, church friends and friends of friends looked for ways to help.
Within a year, the foundation was up and running with a board of directors and more than 20 volunteers. Because Jean's memory would live on through his two young sons, the Stoms decided the foundation would remain in Jeremy's name. But to honor Jean's memory, teens of veterans and active military families would be given special consideration for sponsorships.
Today, the foundation has helped more than 80 teens attend activities from football and basketball camps to a U.S. Naval Sea Cadets program. Area social workers help identify teens who would benefit from the foundation's support.
"These aren't 'at-risk' kids or kids who are already using drugs," explained foundation board member Laurie Pereira. "We're trying to help kids who haven't had a lot of positive experiences in their lives to see what's out there -- to see the great things they can do with their lives."
The foundation hosts several fundraisers throughout the year, including the upcoming Experience Hope 5K run on Sunday, Aug. 28.
For Stom, there's solace in helping other people's children. When she receives a letter from a teen who has had a life-changing experience because of the foundation, it brings her comfort.
"One boy wrote that he saw through his experience that there was more to life than drugs and video games," she said. "And that's my hope -- that they'll start to look into their future. Those are my moments of joy," Stom said. "I had such a hard time finding joy before. Now, I feel I live my life with little moments of joy."
In the future, Stom hopes more research will lead to better treatments for addiction, and someday maybe even a cure.
But, for now, Stom honors the memory of her sons by waging her own quiet war against addiction.
"There are no new memories for my boys. But through the foundation, we're helping other kids make memories -- and hopefully they'll see there are so many great things in life. And I just pray for these kids -- I pray that they'll make it."
Giving youths hopeWho: The Jeremy Stom Remembrance Foundation
What: Experience Hope 5K Run/Walk
When: 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28
Where: Citizens Park, 511 N. Lake Zurich Road in Barrington
Information: (847) 438-8058 or www.jeremystomfoundation.org/events
Amount raised: More than $60,000 since 2011
Purpose: Provide need-based sponsorships for teens to participate in positive recreational activities, including residential camps, music programs and sports camps