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Apr. 12

After Losing Her Son to Heroin, She Helps Addicts – and Families – Along the Road to Recovery

During National Volunteer Week, we celebrate the collective power of volunteers to make a difference in their communities, and recognize extraordinary individuals who are at the center of social change – like Daily Point of Light Award honoree Kathy Koenigsdorf. Read her story and nominate an outstanding volunteer, family or organization as a Point of Light.

Kathy Koenigsdorf, co-founder of the Jake Koenigsdorf Foundation.

“An addict may maintain recovery by helping other people. To think about it visually, if he is reaching his hand out to grab another guy by the wrist to help pull him up, he can’t put a needle in his arm,” says Kathy Koenigsdorf, co-founder of the Jake Koenigsdorf Foundation. “We encourage everyone to help someone else; we foster a sense of community.”

Kathy is not addicted to drugs and never has been. But she learned how quickly it can happen and how tragic the results can be, after her 21-year-old son, Jake, died in 2013 from a heroin overdose. Today, Kathy works tirelessly to raise money for substance abusers who want help but can’t afford it. She created The Jake Koenigsdorf Foundation, and since 2013 has raised $156,000 and funded 172 people into facilities to start on the road to recovery.

Each day more than 120 people die from addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the amount of prescription painkillers dispensed in the United States quadrupled between 1999 and 2013. Deaths from prescription painkillers have also quadrupled since 1999, killing more than 16,000 Americans in 2013. Nearly 2 million Americans, aged 12 or older, either abused or were dependent on opioids in 2013.

Too often, opioid abuse leads to heroin use. But while the trend has been widely publicized, Kathy found that she lacked support because “nobody talked about it.” She says grassroots efforts like hers are needed because doctors too often don’t take early signs of addiction seriously.

In addition to funding drug abuse treatment, Kathy seeks to help other moms, providing support and fostering a sense of belonging.

“In Jake’s case, they just started medicating him,” she says. “Nobody even used the word, addiction, except for my son.” 

Kathy never thought she’d lose a son to heroin addiction. Jake came from a stable, well-to-do home on Long Island, raised by educated, professional parents. “Jake and I had a phenomenally close relationship,” says Kathy, but she was surprised when he confided that he’d developed an addiction to the prescription painkiller Oxycontin. He’d been given a pill from a fellow student in a cafeteria – it was a simple as that.

Just when Jake seemed to benefit from treatment, he was badly injured on the job at a construction site. Hospital personnel, unaware of his previous addiction, gave him strong opioids and prescribed plenty more for home.

“It woke up the addiction,” says Kathy. Just weeks later, Jake was dead.

Kathy sets aside her grief to help others who are caught off guard by drug addiction. David S., of Ohio, credits her with saving his life. David, who says he’s battled multiple addictions for the past 10 years, is clean now, working at his trade of asphalt paving and working with others in recovery services. A year or two ago, he relapsed into heroin use after leaving a treatment center in South Carolina.

“This time, I really had no options for getting back there myself,” he said. “This time, I was busted, had no hope, nothing. I got in touch with the Jake Koenigsdorf Foundation and they—not knowing me from Adam—funded me to go into rehab for at least a month. They gave me a second opportunity at life.”

David says he’s so grateful for getting his health and life back that he mentors other recovering addicts and is extra-determined to stay drug-free.

“It’s always in the back of my mind that I don’t want to let her down,” he says. “There aren’t words for how grateful I am.”

Kathy has found that substance abuse isn’t a popular charitable cause. “There’s such a stigma,” she says. “It’s not cute. They’re not puppies or dolphins or little kids. We get absolutely no funding from commercial sources or other foundations. We have an incredibly hard time getting funding.”

In fact, she says, 90 percent of her project’s funding comes from individuals who’ve discovered the group’s Facebook page. “One lady gives me $5 a month; others will write a $500 or $700 donation once or twice a year.”

Kathy’s efforts to help fund drug abuse treatment have “morphed into a clearinghouse for connections” to help other mothers.

“After starting the foundation and helping their kids get help and find their direction, I help the moms and give them that support and sense of belonging,” she says. “I help facilitate them learning about other support groups—calling me when they need it, and calling other moms. We form a network of support, because women are getting really sick right now, both physically and emotionally. Addiction affects the entire family and we want to reduce the damage and promote healing for everyone affected.

Kathy Koenigsdorf was also recognized by L'Oréal Paris and Points of Light as a 2015 Women of Worth honoree for her extraordinary efforts to help substance abusers find the treatment they need. If you know a woman who works to create lasting and significant change in her community, nominate her to be one of the 2016 Women of Worth.

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