In death, Ian Eaccarino is helping others fight against the addiction he couldn't overcome in life.
Hundreds of Norwalk middle-school students made a pledge this year not to use drugs after hearing of Eaccarino's battle with drug addiction and accidental death from a heroin overdose at the age of 20.
Ginger Katz, Eaccarino's mother, formed the Courage to Speak Foundation after her son's death in 1996, and since that time, more than 12,000 Norwalk students have heard her son's story, and many have committed to remaining drug-free.
During Tuesday night's ninth annual Courage to Speak Empowering Youth to be Drug-Free Family Night at West Rocks Middle School, Norwalk students spoke before hundreds of parents, teachers and city officials about what Katz's story about her son meant to them and to extend their condolences to Katz on the death of her son.
"Once you start drugs, you can't rewind," said Serena Jankovic, a seventh-grader at West Rocks Middle School. "Ian did go to rehab, but after being addicted for so long, just think how hard it would be to truly quit."
Jankovic said her grandfather died from cancer, which he got from smoking, before she had a chance to meet him and that she "can always feel the sadness when my dad or grandma talks about him. They could never get over it.
"In my opinion, no one should have to suffer this pain; the pain that tells you drugs took a loved one. I have decided that I will never have anything to do with drugs. All are death sentences."
Anoushka Chatterjee, also a seventh-grader at West Rocks, said her feelings about drugs were really unknown until she heard Katz's presentation at her school in January.
She said she came to understand how drugs can overtake a person's life.
"I know that once you start, you can't stop," Chatterjee said. "I know I will definitely not get into drugs when I get older. Your presentation showed me what drugs can do to you."
Katz said she isn't going to stop educating people about the dangers of drug use.
"I still do the things that I love best, but the thing that I loved best was loving my son," she said. "Children and young adults are coming to me and confiding in me because of Ian's death."
The night before her son's funeral, Katz said she was lying awake in bed and "visualized speaking out" about the dangers of drugs.
She said she told her husband, Larry, "If this is happening to us, it's happening to other families."
Katz said she learned at her son's funeral that his drug use began in eighth grade with tobacco, beer and a little marijuana.
"Tobacco, a sip of beer and a little weed is why I'm here today," she said. "I do not underestimate these drugs. These drugs opened up the floodgates for Ian."
During her talk, Katz spoke of the dangers of enabling and denial, saying a police officer let Ian off the hook after he was detained for being in a car with marijuana and that Katz believed her son, then a high school freshman, when he said he didn't like marijuana and that the drug belonged to the driver of the car.
She spoke of how drugs and violence are linked and recalled the firebombing of her son's car while it was parked outside her house, an act her son blamed on the jealous boyfriend of a girl he had kissed the night before. She also talked about changes in her son's personality and interests, his attempt to use someone else's urine to pass a drug test, how she threw him out of her house after she discovered he was dealing drugs, their reconciliation and his attempts to defeat his addiction in rehab.
Katz said Eaccarino's drug use had escalated to heroin in college, and, after coming home from college with the goal of defeating his addiction, he died in his sleep from an overdose of heroin mixed with valium.
"He lay there as if in a very deep sleep," Katz said. "I touched him to wake him up, but he didn't budge."
She said she yelled for her husband to call 911 and held her son's hand and talked to him, thinking "if he could hear my voice, he would wake up."
"Addiction is a disease, and I clearly understand it now," Katz said. "While he was alive, I didn't understand it and that's the nature of this disease. I learned I didn't cause it, couldn't cure it and couldn't control it. ... This is one spot your parents can't get you out of. They can't do your program."
Katz said kids should give their parents slack because their parents are trying to help them grow up, and she also spoke of the importance of kids choosing their friends wisely.
"Your friends will bring you up or bring you down," she said.
She also said the course of a young person's life can be dramatically altered in a single moment, when they accept or decline the offer of drugs.
"It's a matter of taking a left turn or a right turn, and it can happen in a matter of a second," she said.
Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said it was not just important to decline drugs, but to advocate that others decline as well.
"It's also having the courage to say to your friends not to do it," he said. "You have to be role models for others."
State Sen. Bob Duff, who served as host for Tuesday night's program, said the key to preventing drug abuse is for parents to tell their kids about the dangers of drugs early on. He said those conversations can help to dilute the effectiveness of peer pressure.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., wrote a letter to Norwalk students in which he said that people often ask him how he became the youngest senator in Washington and got to hang out with the president. Murphy wrote that he studied hard, listened to his parents and said no to drugs.
"I hope you always remember the coolest kids are the ones who say `No,' " Murphy wrote in the letter, which was read by Sean Scanlon, his director of community affairs.
The Courage to Speak Foundation, in addition to educating students about the dangers of drugs, also has "Courageous Parenting 101" workshops in five states.
"They put their heart and soul into this every single year, and this has grown over time," Duff said.
He said Katz was "fulfilling her promise to Ian to do everything in her power to prevent what happened to Ian from happening to others."
Norwalk Mayor Richard A. Moccia said there was no way to gauge the impact of what Katz is doing because her message spreads beyond the people she's directly spoken to.
"There's no way of quantifying it, there's no way of measuring the impact these programs have had on keeping kids off drugs," Moccia said. "Keep talking. Keep having the guts to say what you have to say."
Katz said she once asked her son why he went to drugs and he denied it was because of a girl or because Katz and his biological father divorced. She said she later learned from friends of his that he had told them he was "touched wrong" by a babysitter when he was 10. She advised students not to keep their pain inside because "risky behaviors come out."
"Find three to five adults in your life you can share your secrets with," Katz said. "Don't keep them in."
Before the program, Lexus Felder, a fifth-grader at Side by Side Charter School, said she made the pledge not to use drugs because she has seen how they affect people's lives. She said she would keep the pledge, but didn't think it would be easy.
"I'm not really good with peer pressure," she said.
Johnny Grasso, a seventh-grader at Side by Side Charter School, said he made the pledge because "it's good to let people know that drugs are not necessary. God put us on this world for a reason and it's to live life to its fullest and not do drugs."
Tes De Jaeger, also a seventh-grader at Side by Side Charter School, said she too believed she would be able to resist peer pressure because of what Katz taught her.
"It's going to hurt if you lose someone and you're going to regret not telling them how bad drugs are," she said.
At the end of the program, Duff presented awards to the Norwalk Citizen and to The Hour for their "spirit and dedication" in covering issues related to the work of nonprofits in the city.