My Child's Life Matters helps those dealing with opioid addictions

Kathy and Robb Zander lost their son, John Allen, to fentanyl poisoning almost three years ago - four days before his 23rd birthday.

They are not alone in their grief. In 2018, 64 people died from fentanyl poisoning in DuPage County alone.

Kathy was a single mom while raising John. She says he was the kind of guy who loved sports and was extremely charismatic.

They had a very close relationship. He told Kathy he smoked marijuana and did other drugs, but he would never use heroin. Never.

Until one day, he did.

John changed immediately and didn't seem like himself, Kathy said.

He ended up unknowingly using heroin that contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. Kathy and Robb were in complete shock. John was buried on his 23rd birthday.

  Writing on the wall of My Child's Life Matters in Villa Park remembers the too-short life of John Allen. Brian Hill/

Their shock was followed by frustration.

"John made a choice to get high, not to die," Robb said.

Robb himself is in recovery, and he and his wife knew their son's heartbreaking death was not rare. As a way to cope, the Zanders began raising awareness of the opioid and fentanyl crisis and trying to help others in the same situation. Many of those people live right here in the suburbs.

"People don't want to hear about it," Kathy said. "But it's happening right here in their backyard."

Heroin & fentanyl

In 2018, DuPage County saw 98 opioid deaths. Thirty-four were due to heroin and fentanyl mixtures, and 30 were due to fentanyl alone.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It can be lethal at just two milligrams, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said the heroin crisis began to morph into a fentanyl crisis in 2015. Adding the lethal substance to commonly sold opioids has upped the death count.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has been proactive in fighting drug-induced homicides, Jorgensen said. Raoul filed a lawsuit last year against major opioid manufacturers and has passed bills fighting against the opioid crisis.

But the problem persists, and drug dealers, like the man who sold to John, perpetuate it. Organizations such as DuPage County's Heroin/Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) Taskforce are working on prevention and education.

The Zanders made it their mission to do the same, hoping it would be more effective through their faith-based charity, My Child's Life Matters.

'Discussing it is hard'

Kathy and Robb began talking about just how prevalent the opioid crisis is. But most deaths are of teens and people in their 20s - which makes conversation challenging.

"Trying to discuss it is hard," Jorgensen said. "There's a stigma that makes it difficult to talk about, even when it's a part of the community."

Kathy said she noticed the resistance when she and Robb started raising awareness after John's death.

  The space that Robb and Kathy Zander use to run a charity called My Child's Life Matters in Villa Park, which aims to help people battle opioid addictions. Brian Hill/

They opened a resale shop in West Chicago to raise money for their charity. They also have a meeting room, where they invite people struggling with addiction to come in, talk and begin the detox process through a 12-step recovery program. The Zanders say they helped 57 people get clean at that shop.

They felt they weren't getting the community support they needed, so they moved the shop to 704 N. Addison Road in Villa Park, where it now stands.

Still, the Zanders said they felt some community resistance. Robb said it seems the denial comes from an inability to understand the problem.

"It's not just about the addiction," Robb said. "It's about the substance designed to kill them."

The couple's main goal with My Child's Life Matters and the shop is helping people detox. Most opioid users go through rehab several times, and the success rate for staying clean is small.

Robb said his own journey to recovery helps him relate to the people who come in. He knows the tells of a relapse and can recognize when people are lying.

"If you haven't been through it, you will believe everything they say," Robb said.

The shop also hosts grief meetings and works with DuPage County to host Heroin Anonymous meetings. The Zanders have formed many close relationships, and often visit members at hospitals or in rehab.

  Robb and Kathy Zander say they have helped 57 people get clean from opioid addictions. Brian Hill/

"It has really helped me process everything," Kathy said. "I always see John in them. We're able to form a trusting bond."

But the grief didn't end for the Zanders. Many concerned parents have come into the shop, and Kathy said it hurts to know exactly what they are going through.

"It's a mixed bag," Robb said. "It drives Kathy to get out of bed in the morning. But sometimes the burden is a lot to bear."

Ride for John

Despite everything, the Zanders don't plan on giving up. The charity's main awareness event, Ride for John, grows in popularity each year. The number of motorcycle riders represents the number of people who died every day from opioid poisoning in the U.S. the previous year.

Organizers say they expect at least 200 motorcycle riders to participate in this summer's Ride for John to highlight the opioid crisis in DuPage County. Sheriff James Mendrick will be among the guest speakers. Courtesy Robb and Kathy Zander

Last year, the event featured roughly 75 riders and passengers. This year, Robb said they expect more than 200 riders.

Kathy said John loved motorcycles, so the event is a fitting honor. The ride highlights the opioid problem in DuPage County, and is a good outlet to network, Kathy said.

This year's event will be Saturday, July 25, beginning at Boomerz Cycle Workz in Bloomingdale and ending at the fountain in Carol Stream's Ross Ferraro Park. Registration begins at 9 a.m. and the ride is at 10:30 a.m.

Afterward, riders can gather at the fountain from 2 to 8 p.m. for live music, food and drinks, raffles, prizes and guest speakers.

DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick and families of those who have died will be in attendance. Kathy said the speakers help put a face to the statistics.

The number of opioid-related deaths is still rising. Jorgensen said the increase is frustrating because DuPage has made progress in raising awareness, but it has not led to a decrease in numbers.

"Students are fairly aware of the problem," Jorgensen said. "But adults are surprised at the breadth of the problem. It's important to have people understand that this problem is so strong and powerful."

The Zanders hope to have more of an impact as they continue raising money. They said every aspect of their future will go toward My Child's Life Matters.

"I would rather save someone's life than be driving a Camaro," Robb said.

As long as the crisis persists, the Zanders said they are not going anywhere. Their son's death turned their world upside down, and they want to save others from their pain.

"We lost all interest in this mundane world," Robb said. "This gives us a purpose."

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