- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - When Nancy Chappell moved away from Springfield in August, she felt like she was leaving two cities behind.

There’s the quiet, friendly, God-fearing town she was expecting when she moved here in 2007, but there is also a much darker Springfield she wishes she had never seen.

“There is the Springfield that lives in decent homes and goes to church and does charity and has normal lives like we all hope to have,” Chappell told the News-Leader (https://sgfnow.co/1GyFZJz ). “And then there is the underbelly that is just full of decay. And more and more of our kids are getting sucked in.”

Chappell’s son was one of those kids who was sucked in and never got pulled out. After multiple attempts to get clean, Sam Chappell died of a heroin overdose on Sept. 7 at the age 21.

Sam’s story is becoming a more common one in the Ozarks as heroin continues to burrow into Springfield’s drug market.

Springfield police have seized more of the drug so far this year (343 grams) than the last four years combined.

And while a dose of the powerful opioid is sometimes cheaper than a pack of cigarettes on the streets, many users in southwest Missouri are paying with their lives. The Greene County Medical Examiner reports there have been 11 confirmed heroin-related deaths in the county this year compared to six deaths last year and one in 2013.

Nancy Chappell said it was “just hell” watching her son’s battle with heroin addiction, and she wants to expose some of the ugliness in Springfield in hopes of sparing other parents the same pain.

It’s too late for Cindi Byersmith to avoid that pain, but she shares Nancy’s goal.

Byersmith’s son Craig ran in the same circles as Sam Chappell, and he met the same fate.

Craig Byersmith is one of the six local heroin-related deaths of 2014. He was 20-years-old when he died of an overdose in a crowded house in north Springfield.

While both Nancy and Cindi acknowledge their sons made bad decisions when they chose to use drugs, they also believe their boys didn’t deserve to die.

Nancy and Cindi say the system failed their children by not providing adequate prevention education or rehabilitation options.

Nancy Chappell said Sam was bright, imaginative and quietly funny. As a child, he devoured books well beyond his grade level.

As Sam went through school, the family moved several times because Sam’s father Jim was in the military. Through the years, Nancy started to notice some changes in her son.

“In elementary school, he experienced some pretty awful treatment from other kids,” Nancy said. “There was some bullying that was pretty harsh.”

Nancy said Sam never fully recovered from the bullying he experienced as a child.

The family landed in Springfield when Sam was 12, and he enrolled at Cherokee Middle School before moving on to Kickapoo High School.

It was in high school that Nancy says Sam developed a problem with drugs. He started with marijuana and then got into harder drugs like Ecstasy and prescription pain killers.

Eventually, Sam turned to heroin.

Nancy tried everything. She sent Sam to short-term rehab in Springfield and off to boarding school in Texas. She helped him enroll in Narcotics Anonymous and also put him out of the house when he wouldn’t obey her rules. But Sam could never stay clean for more than a few months.

“It was just a horrible ride,” Nancy said. “He couldn’t escape it. The addiction was too powerful.”

Still, Nancy says she never lost hope in her son. And she was perhaps never more hopeful than this summer.

In May, Nancy took Sam 1,600 miles away from Springfield in hopes that a change of scenery might be beneficial. The mother and son spent more than a month in California hiking 93 miles on the John Muir Trail.

“The transition took place where, instead of me leading him and encouraging him, he started leading me and encouraging me,” Nancy said. “It was really a positive thing.”

Nancy and Sam returned to Springfield in early July. Nancy felt good about her son’s future.

Sam moved to Ohio after the California trip to live with a friend. He secured a couple of jobs, had a strong support system and seemed to be doing well.

Two months later, Sam was dead.

“I can’t even describe the reaction,” Nancy said. “That hope was taken away, and there was just numbness. I think numbness was the main thing. You then have to swing into action.”

Nancy spent the following days informing friends and relatives about Sam’s death and making funeral arrangements. Part of her duties included writing Sam’s obituary.

Nancy and Sam’s father Jim decided to include in Sam’s obituary that he died of a heroin overdose. Nancy said the only way Springfield can overcome its growing heroin problem is by acknowledging it exists.

“When Sam was in Springfield, I was very involved and proactive,” Nancy said. “I paid a lot of attention, as best I could, to where he was, what he was doing, who his connections were. The picture that I saw is horrifying. There is something going on in Springfield and many other towns in the Midwest and everywhere else that is horrifying, and people need to see it.”

Nancy said she has struggled with blaming herself, but she believes she and Jim were good parents who did everything they could. In the end, no one could catch Sam as he fell deeper into addiction.

“It’s society’s problem,” Nancy said. “We are doing a very inadequate job. What we are offering to our kids as a society is not enough.”

As heroin use spikes, Missouri lacks key to prevention

Nancy said she would like to see schools make more efforts to be inclusive and teach drug prevention. She also said she would like to see more affordable, effective rehab options for young people who get started on the wrong path.

“I think it’s a life and death thing,” Nancy said. “Our kids are out there in a jungle.”

Sam’s friend Craig Byersmith - a bulky, outgoing high school football player - was no stranger to that jungle.

The Byersmiths moved to the Springfield area when Craig was in fifth grade, and he enrolled in Willard schools.

Craig’s story is similar to Sam’s story. He got involved with the wrong crowd, started with recreational drugs and then got into the harder stuff.

Craig’s mother Cindi said her son was in rehab half-a-dozen times during his teenage years, but the longest he stayed clean was about 7 months.

When Cindi confronted Craig about track marks on his arms, he started shooting up between his toes.

“He had the mindset that a lot of young people have,” Cindi said. “They think that they are untouchable, they are all like Superman.”

Cindi feared it would be too late before Craig finally realized he wasn’t invincible. And she was right.

One evening in January 2014, Craig lost consciousness while eating a sandwich at his friend’s house on North Rural Avenue in Springfield. It was at least 30 minutes before Craig’s friends called 911.

By the time first responders arrived, it was too late. Craig - who had heroin and other drugs in his system - was dead on the bathroom floor in a home just east of the Springfield-Branson National Airport. Police say the house was filthy with trash and dirty clothes piled up in almost every room.

Police investigated Craig’s death, but ultimately no one was charged.

Cindi said she wishes someone would have been held accountable for their actions the night Craig died, but the only person she wishes was in jail is her son. Then, she says, at least she could still see him.

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, I really wouldn’t,” Cindi said. “I will never be the same person, I will never be the same Cindi who I was before I lost my son.

“I am healing, I am learning to move on with my life, but there is not a day that goes by where I don’t think of him countless times.”

Like Nancy Chappell, Cindi also struggled with blaming herself, but she is now focused on the shortcomings in the system and doing what she can to save the next young person who falls victim to addiction.

Cindi said when she is having an especially tough day she picks up a pen or a paint brush or a colored pencil and starts making art.

She sells her artwork at Facebook.com/LoveYouToHeavenAndBack and donates part of the proceeds to Better Life in Recovery, a local group that helps people struggling with addiction.

A polar bear piece to honor Craig is now tattooed on her right arm.

Cindi is in a good place as she tries to cope with her son’s death, but every day is still a challenge, one that she hopes fewer parents will have to confront in the future.

“I don’t want anybody else to have the cop knock at your door and say your son’s dead,” Cindi said. “I don’t want that to happen to anybody else. It shouldn’t happen. We’re not supposed to bury our kids.

“If one person gets this message, then I have succeeded.”


Information from: Springfield News-Leader, https://www.news-leader.com

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