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Making Courage Contagious

Kirk Jonah has devoted himself to making sure fewer families must suffer the kind of tragedy his did — the death of his son Jack (inset) to a heroin overdose in 2016 at age 19.

Kirk Jonah doesn’t rely on a set script when he gives one of his talks; he’ll vary the message to the setting and the audience.

But generally speaking, he’ll wrap things up the same way, especially when he’s speaking to young people.

He puts up an image of a form. He’ll usually ask if someone knows what it is, and often, someone will offer that it’s a birth certificate. He focuses in closer with the next PowerPoint slide, and it becomes clear that is instead a death certificate — one for his son, Jack.

Then he focuses in even closer on the ‘cause-of-death’ line and the words ‘acute heroin intoxication.’ “I tell them, ‘this is what you get, as a parent, five or six weeks after you bury your child — a death certificate,’” he told BusinessWest.

And he leaves the image there for a few moments — usually to very dramatic effect.

Jonah started giving these talks not long after Jack died of that overdose in April 2016. He says he probably averages one a month now, although the talks frequently come in spurts. And, as noted, the audience varies. Often, it’s young people, but sometimes it’s parents. And at other times, it’s a mix of both.

He talks about Jack — his life as well as his death — but he also makes a point of talking about survivors, those who are fighting addiction, to show there is a path to a better life.

Overall, he talks about the choices people have to make and the need to make smart ones (much more on this later). There are three themes — honor those who have died, educate people about those choices to be made, and support those who are fighting the fight. Honor, educate, and support.

And if there is an overriding message, it’s that everyone, that’s everyone, has to do all they can to prevent more parents, more families, from being mailed a death certificate like the one sent to the Jonah residence.

Today, he’s presenting this message and those themes on platforms far beyond the podium. Indeed, Jonah and his family — wife Nini, son Dan, and daughter Karlye — have created the Jack Jonah Foundation, which this spring staged its first fundraising walk.

Jack Jonah, far right, with his siblings, Dan and Karlye, and grandmother, Anita Barrett.

It netted more than $70,000 in contributions that will be distributed to nonprofits helping to wage the fight against opioid abuse, but it much more than that. It brought more than 1,000 people together behind a cause that has too often been relegated to the background because of the stigma against drug abuse.

And soon, there will be a movie about the Jonah family and its work, to be undertaken by JCFilms, a maker of family-friendly, faith-based narratives; the working title could also be called the unofficial mission of the recently formed foundation — Jack Jonah: Making Courage Contagious.

Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Out of Time, Rat Race, and, more recently, a host of JCFilms productions) has been cast in the role of Kirk Jonah, and other roles will be filled soon. In fact, a casting call was issued, and auditions were held on July 20 at West Springfield High School. The poster declared there are more than 13 adult roles, more than 25 teenage roles, and 200 background actors.

“This is not a biography; it’s not a chronology,” said Jonah. “It’s about Jack, and it’s about our family, but there will be a lot of moving parts; it’s an opportunity to engage people in fighting this epidemic.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Jonah about the film, the foundation, and the sum of his efforts to prevent more tragedies like the one that befell his family.

Bitter Pills

Jonah recalls the short conversation as being somewhat odd.

A friend with the West Springfield police called and told him he needed to get home as quick as he could. But he didn’t say why.

Upon arriving, Jonah, who theorized it might have something to do with his alarm system, was told why. His son had been found dead in his room with hypodermic needles around him. Jonah had to take the police at their word because his room was now a crime scene and he was not allowed in.

“The room was locked off — there were police officers at both stairwells,” he recalled. “I called family, they started coming to the house, and we sat in the kitchen while the coroner came and went up to the room, and then the body was taken out of the house; we were not allowed to see any of it.”

Thus, Jack’s death became the latest in an epidemic of fatal overdoses rocking this region and this nation. This one was a little different, though.

Jack’s family had absolutely no idea he was using heroin. None whatsoever.

Kirk Jonah ends most of his talks by putting his son’s death certificate on the screen and focusing in on the ‘cause of death’ line.

“We didn’t see any signs,” said Jonah. “A lot of people who have come up to me over the years have said that a loved one had been fighting addiction for five years or 10 years and they had gone through a lot of difficult moments. We didn’t have that with Jack — we were completely surprised.”

The basic reason for this surprise was all the good that was going on in Jack’s life in the months and years leading up to this tragedy, none of it really consistent with heroin addiction.

“He was going to HCC [Holyoke Community College] and was dean’s list,” Jonah explained. “He was deciding what he wanted to do, and he had kind of narrowed it down to working with animals — he worked at Boston Road Animal Hospital, where he assisted surgical vets — or the medical field, like nursing.

“He was very artistic,” he went on, adding that Jack created a self-portrait in charcoal that hangs in the family’s living room. “He played guitar, he played the piano, and he was also involved in drama — he did some acting and was involved with other students in writing a play called Labels. He was fiercely loyal to his friends and family, and he was just a great kid and a wonderful young man.”

To this day, Kirk Jonah still doesn’t know when or how his son became hooked on heroin. Since Jack’s death, no one has come forward with any information that might help him solve that puzzle.

But in most all respects, it doesn’t matter. What does is that someone died of a heroin overdose. And Jonah, with the help of his family and a very supportive employer, Holyoke Gas & Electric, has dedicated himself to saving some of the lives that might otherwise be lost to drug addiction and overdoses.

When asked how this work began and why, Jonah started by referencing the many sleepless nights he was experiencing after his son’s death.

“A person said to me, ‘that’s Jack and God speaking to you — listen to them, open up, invite them in,’” he recalled. “So I said, ‘OK.’”

He said he was asked to speak at Holyoke Mall at an event called “Living in Plain Sight,” put on by the CARE (Collaborative Accountability Reaches Everyone) Coalition of West Springfield, and from there, the requests have multiplied.

He’s spoken at events ranging from assemblies at area schools to a gathering at Baystate Noble Hospital to Mercy Medical Center’s annual Caritas Gala; Channel 57 recently made the family’s story the basis of an episode of its Connecting Point show.

“People just kept reaching out to me asking me to speak,” he said, adding that he now gives about a dozen talks a year.

Talking Points

As noted earlier, his presentations vary in their specific talking points, depending on the audience.

When he’s talking to the those who have suffered a loss like his, he has some poignant thoughts on coping, advice handed down from his grief counselor.

“I tell them, ‘you’re going to be sad every day, but don’t make it all day — make it part of your day,’” said Jonah, who can tell you at any moment how many years, months, and days it has been since his son’s death. “I say, ‘manage it as best you can; that’s what I do.’

“I have this imagery vault, and I’m the only one who has a key,” he went on. “I open that vault every day, and I take out that sadness; it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it can last 10 minutes, sometimes it’s 30 minutes, sometimes it’s longer. But then you take this sadness, put it back in the vault, lock it, and say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’”

In all cases, though, Jonah’s talks come back to choices, and the need to make smart ones.

These choices come in all varieties, he went on, from young people deciding whether to pop a few prescription pills while at a friend’s party to adults deciding how to store and dispose of such pills, to the friends of those who are abusing drugs deciding whether to intervene and tell the parents of such an individual.

“In a lot of cases, it starts with prescription medication,” Jonah said of heroin addiction. “It might be at a party, and they took their parents’ prescription pills,” he said. “One person gets addicted, and the other one doesn’t; you don’t know which one you’re going to be, and that’s why you have to make smart decisions.”

He also encourages people to speak up, as difficult as that might be in many situations.

Specifically, he often relates the story of one young person who did speak up and told his parents that his brother had a problem that needed to be addressed.

“This person called his parents, and they said, ‘OK,’ and they started watching for signs,” said Jonah. “When they found their son overdosed, they had Narcan, and they revived him; he’s now been clean for many, many years.

“I say to the kids, ‘how do you think that brother who was doing the heroin felt when his brother spoke up?’” he went on. “They all say, ‘not good.’ I ask, ‘how do you think he feels now?’ They’re best friends.”

He also relates the story of someone who didn’t speak up about an individual who eventually died of an overdose. “And I ask them, ‘which one are you going to be?’”

And, as noted, he finishes with that death certificate.

“I say, ‘when you leave here today, you may remember Mr. Jonah, or you may not; you may remember Jack, or you may not,’” he said. “‘But when you’re out in the world and you’re faced with a challenging decision, think of that death certificate, and hopefully it will give you the strength and confidence to make the right decision.’”

The talks were followed by a website, a logo, a Facebook page, and, eventually, the foundation, a 501(c)(3), all of which came about through the help of a number of supporters, said Jonah, adding that the film, production of which will begin next month, is the latest platform for telling the story.

The short informational piece on the Jack Jonah Foundation website pretty much tells the story about why the film is being made and what those behind it hope to accomplish.

“Jack Jonah was an extraordinary teen with real dreams and a bright future,” it reads. “On April 6, 2016, that ended, and he quickly became a statistic.

“Will you join this project to challenge teens in the community and communities around the country to be courageous in speaking out against drug usage among teens?” it continues. “This is bigger than just a film about Jack’s life; it’s about his voice being echoed throughout this film to save lives.”

In a nutshell, that’s what Kirk Jonah’s talks, the website, the foundation, and everything else are all about.

Inspiration that Lives on

Jonah told BusinessWest that he reaps many rewards from his ongoing work. The most important to him are the comments from those who approach him after one of his talks, at the fundraising walk, or just on the street.

Parents have told him that he has inspired them to become more open about a child’s problem and not be caught up in the stigma of drug abuse. Young people have told him that, because of his words, they have intervened in an effort to help a friend, or plan to.

In short, he believes he is creating some progress in an ongoing war against opioid addiction — progress that will hopefully translate into fewer people getting a death certificate like he did.

And he gives all or most of the credit for this progress to Jack, and the way his story continues to move others.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]