- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

GRANGER, Ind. (AP) - Seeing the faces of her sons, Nick and Jack, still takes Becky Savage’s breath away. No matter how many public talks she gives, it’s always hard to turn and see the sons she lost projected onto a screen behind her.

Becky faced it for the first time in May 2016, when she was asked by the Alcohol and Addiction Resource Center to speak at a town hall meeting at Bethel College. She decided to show the photos as part of the talk.

“I show pictures at the beginning so people can see that these weren’t who you would think are making bad choices,” Becky said.

She was told to expect maybe 20 people at the event. More than 200 showed up.

The surprise attendance sent a message to Becky and her husband, Mike - there might some good to achieve from their loss.

“We both said obviously there’s a real impact behind our story,” Mike recalled. “So let’s see where this thing goes.”

On June 14, 2015, Nick and Jack Savage died from drug overdoses after a party where they consumed a combination of alcohol and the prescription painkiller oxycodone.

Nick, 19, had just finished his freshman year at Indiana University Bloomington, where he was majoring in microbiology and chemistry. Jack, 18, was heading to Ball State University in the fall to major in business. Both were graduates of Penn High School.

For a little more than a year now, Becky and Mike have been using their personal story to try to help other families avoid a similar tragedy.

The Savages created the 525 Foundation - named after Jack and Nick’s hockey jersey numbers, 5 and 25 - to grow their awareness efforts.

The family, which includes two other sons Justin, 18, and Matthew, 13, received many donations after Nick and Jack died. But the money just sat in a memorial fund, Becky said, and the family wasn’t sure what to do with it.

With the foundation and Becky’s public talks around the community, the family strives to educate people about the dangers of prescription drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Before Nick and Jack died, Mike never registered the thought of his kids using prescription drugs recreationally.

And Becky doesn’t recall ever hearing much about being mindful of the dangers. Neither did her kids, she said.

“It was something they had never been exposed to,” she said, “so when they were exposed to it, they didn’t know what to do.”

When Becky speaks to students, the crowd is always silent, intently listening to her story. Looking into the sea of faces, Becky says, she can picture Nick and Jack.

The talks don’t get easier, but seeing her sons in other kids keeps her going.

“I’m trying to prevent this from happening to one of those kids,” Becky said. “It’s trying to get the point across that you don’t have to be a drug abuser to die of an overdose. Our boys were by no means drug abusers. It was just a poor choice they made that night.”

In St. Joseph County, a majority of last year’s overdose deaths involved prescription drugs. It was a statistic that surprised County Prosecutor Ken Cotter.

The Drug Investigation Unit was created last year in response to those numbers. The task force investigates overdose deaths, as well as functioning as a traditional narcotics squad, investigating and building cases against drug dealers.

Last year, there were 58 drug-involved deaths in St. Joseph County, more than homicides and fatal accidents combined. When the DIU was created, Cotter said, the team anticipated most of the overdose deaths were going to be from heroin.

But only about 9 percent of the drug deaths were from heroin alone. Most deaths involved some mixture of prescription medication. Of the 58 deaths, the majority involved opiates, which include both prescription drugs and heroin.

“We are finding that most of the overdoses are not the illegal drugs that were produced illegally,” Cotter said. “They were legally produced and taken illegally. They are pills that were prescribed by a doctor.”

The deaths of Nick and Jack Savage added to the growing alarm locally about the use, and abuse, of opiates. Overdose deaths continue to climb in states across the country, in what many experts are calling an epidemic.

The DIU has investigated cases involving people from kids to the elderly, and from white-collar professionals to unemployed people.

“That’s the scariest thing of all,” Cotter said. “You can’t put your finger on ‘if we just focus on these people.’ It’s throughout our community.”

After the deaths of the Savages, Judge Jane Miller sentenced Kyle Treber for bringing prescription drugs to the party Nick and Jack attended. Calling Treber, who was 19 at the time, “more dangerous than a drug dealer on the street,” she handed down a two-year sentence - 90 days in jail, followed by community corrections, with the second year suspended on probation.

From the public talks, the Savages have learned first-hand the scope of the prescription drug abuse problem locally.

After one talk, a student approached Becky in tears to say her sister had overdosed. Others have said they know friends who are struggling or that they personally were going to talk to their parents about their choices.

And from students’ questions, Becky can tell many have already been exposed to the issue in some way. Questions arise about how to intervene if a friend is abusing prescription drugs or how to respond if offered drugs.

Unfortunately, the Savages have found parents are much less aware of the dangers. They’ve met many parents who tell them they had no idea it was a problem, at least not in their neighborhood.

But the Savages are finding their work is helping.

One parent told Becky that her son was offered prescription drugs at a party but knew to say no because of the couple’s talk.

“She felt like that saved his life,” Becky said. “I don’t know if it did or not, but he made a better choice than he might have.”

Next month will mark two years since Nick and Jack died.

The Savages moved into a new home about a year and a half ago. There are pictures in the living room of the entire family, as well as photos of Nick and Jack, although Becky tried not to make the house a shrine to her sons. And she still has her favorite photo with the boys - a picture of her, Nick and Jack at the hospital on the day Jack was born.

“Nothing will ever be the same,” Becky said. “It’s a struggle every day to try to keep that normalcy for our other kids.”

A focus on building the 525 Foundation certainly helps.

A website, 525foundation.org, launched this week. The site includes information about the family’s work, how to donate and upcoming events, such as a golf outing in June.

The Savages plan to create videos that can be shown around prom and graduation season, and they would like to partner with other organizations. The 525 Foundation recently teamed with local law enforcement and the Alcohol & Addictions Resource Center for a pill drop-off event, in conjunction with National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.

Becky’s talks will also start taking her farther out. She has talks planned in Cleveland and the Chicago and Indianapolis areas.

“A lot of movement is happening with the foundation because the awareness is growing,” Becky said.

Though it can be hard reliving the deaths, some healing comes from knowing other people can be helped.

Nick and Jack are living on, Becky said, and making a difference.

“I’m going to try my hardest to make sure their story doesn’t end the way it did on June 14 (2015),” she said. “Somehow they are going to have a happy ending. It’s going to be a happy ending because they are going to save somebody’s life.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune: https://bit.ly/2qWK3zV

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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