Alliance Fundraiser Spreads 'A Message of Hope' Through Drug Awareness
The benefit takes place Thursday, Sept. 20 at the Sewickley Heights Golf Club.
Emily Bennett had huge aspirations, but she struggled to free herself from the tight grip of addiction that had taken hold of her life.
Jeff Bennett of Bell Acres said he and his wife Patti, both educated professionals, thought they were doing all the right things to help their daughter, who seemed to be making progress.
Emily died in January last year from a heroin overdose at age 22. Her parents struggle everyday with their loss.
“We know in our open conversations with her, she didn’t want to be this way,” Jeff Bennett said. “I’m hoping that our openness will help somebody else learn a little bit quicker and to ask some questions a little bit earlier.”
Bennett is a new member on the board of directors of the Franklin Park-based Pennsylvania Alliance for Safe and Drug Free Children, working to raise awareness about youth drug addiction. Alliance is a coalition that works to educate families about drug prevention and intervention and offers parent support to address other child safety concerns, such as bullying.
Alliance will host “A Message of Hope,” fundraiser from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Sewickley Heights Golf Club, to support the coalition’s mission, which depends on community funding for sustainability.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro offensive tackle Tunch Ilkin will serve as master of ceremonies. Live and silent auctions will include Steelers and Pirates memorabilia.
Debra Kehoe, president of Alliance, said the event will also include the premiere of “Listen II,” a new educational video that looks at the traumatic effects of drug addiction through the eyes of parents who have suffered the loss of children.
The video, produced by Michael Bartley, managing editor of WQED, includes the Bennetts' story. The film is a follow-up to Listen I produced a decade ago.
Kehoe said the new video is geared toward parents and students transitioning into high school and will be shown to parents and groups in Quaker Valley and other local districts. The film serves as a resource for the community that teaches what every parent should look for and be aware of in dealing with youth drug use and prevention, she said.
“The video is about responsibility," Kehoe said. "If you saw somebody drowning, would you jump in and save them or would you call for help? If you know the parent down the street is holding an underage drinking party for their kid and their friends, you have a responsibility,” Kehoe said.
Alliance was founded in 2002 after a 16-year-old high school student died from a cocaine overdose. Alliance has since partnered with a number of school districts, including Quaker Valley, and organizations to serve as a resource of information.
Kehoe said drugs available to kids today are synthetic, chemical substances that make fighting the disease even more challenging. She said addiction crosses all boundaries, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.
“It’s good families,” she said. “This disease comes from good families.”
Bennett said if they had known some of the things they know now, they probably would have handled matters differently to save their daughter. He said the learning curve was steep.
“We couldn’t keep up with it,” he said. “A step would have been nice. We were always two or three steps behind it and it beat us to the finish line.”
Bennett said his daughter had a big heart and loved the arts. She had a fine eye for photography and enjoyed making pottery so much, she took every class she could at Sweetwater Center for the Arts.
After graduating from high school, she attended classes at the Penn State-Beaver campus for a year, but ended up leaving school and working a couple of jobs. Emily was battling medical problems, suffering through depression and starting to hang with the wrong kinds of people.
“Between the depression, her poor self-esteem and her medical issues, and the people she was hanging out with—all of these and probably some things we're not even aware of—contributed,” he said.
She appeared to be getting better. The family worked with the police and the judicial system. They supported their daughter in rehabilitation, sat through a parents’ program and visited her every week.
Toward the end of her life, Emily had remained drug free for a month and received a 30-day pin for her achievement. She overdosed on heroin at the McDonald’s in Bellevue and remained in a coma for 10 days before her parents took her off life support.
“We thought we were doing all the right things and in hindsight you know there are so many (things) we probably would have done differently,” he said.
Bennett said wealthier communities such as Sewickley are blessed to have high property values, great educational facilities and community resources. But he said all of the things that make these communities great are also what make the community vulnerable.
“It’s the perfect melting pot for addiction to take hold. Families are too proud to talk about the issues. They are swept under the rugs, under the carpet."
Bennett said a person addicted to drugs will find a way to get their hands on the substance, even if they don't have money. He said users will steal, barter or do what they can. They'll raid their friends' medicine cabinets or a stranger's at an open house. Dealers even front drugs because they know an addict will be back, he said.
"You learn pretty quickly to keep the money away so you give them a BP card to fill their car with gas. They fill the drug dealer's car with gas," he said. "They’ll figure out a way to get it to work.”
He understands some might feel embarrassed, or afraid to be labeled a "snitch," but said the alternative to remaining silent doesn’t benefit anyone.
“I’m asking the community to expose themselves,” he said.
Bennett remembers being approached by people who would say, “oh I saw Emily one day and I thought I should call you and let you know that.”
“But, they never did,” he said. “That’s what this message of hope is. To keep something from happening, stop and take a step back.”
Bennett said he often gets approached since his daughter died and he's received encouraging notes from people who call his actions brave. If shedding light on his daughter’s story can help another family, he said his efforts are worth it. He urges parents to begin early by talking with their children about drugs.
“If we can stop one family from going through what we went through, then this was worth it."
What: 'A Message of Hope,' fundraiser
When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20
Where: Sewickley Heights Golf Club,
Price: $100 per person or $750 for a table of eight
Why: Become a part of “A Message of Hope.” Visit the Pennsylvania Alliance for Safe and Drug Free Children website, attend the event or donate to the cause.
The fundraiser includes a live and silent auction of Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates memorabilia. For more information call Debra Kehoe, executive director of the Alliance, at 724-612-5554. The toll-free, non-crisis resource line is 1-866-988-9900.