Vicki Foley can trace her son Chris' drug use back to junior high, when he started smoking cigarettes.
The cigarettes led to marijuana and the marijuana eventually led to heroin.
The heroin led to his death.
"Heroin took his life," Foley said of the 27-year-old. "And it left a big hole in ours."
Foley, president of Chris Walk Against Substance Abuse, joined representatives of other community groups Wednesday at Community Christian Church in Naperville to discuss ways they are fighting the growing tide of heroin use from prevention to treatment.
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, who organized the round-table talk, said there have been 42 heroin-related deaths in DuPage County so far this year and 29 in Will County.
"It's clear we are facing an epidemic of heroin abuse, and we need innovative solutions to counteract this growing problem," Foster said.
The Robert Crown Centers for Health Education tries to educate teens before they start using, said Joan Drummond Olson, director of communications.
The group has created multimedia educational materials to help students understand the drug's effect on their bodies, brains and lives without preaching to them.
"Heroin is a different drug that needs to be talked about in a different way," Olson said.
Jeffery Farson, director of student services at Naperville North High School, said educators have found it difficult to reach out to parents who are afraid of the stigma of having a child involved in drug use. Naperville North and Central high schools have been trying to educate staff and parents through forums and also have an educational program for freshmen that is led by peers. A tip line allows parents and students to report concerns anonymously and a liaison helps families struggling with addiction
"We're responding and we're listening and we want to be part of this community fight," Farson said. "We love our kids. More than you know."
Jim Scarpace, executive director of Gateway Foundation Aurora, and Carrie Thomas, coordinator of the Kane County Drug Rehabilitation Court, both work with people who are already addicted to heroin.
"The reality is treatment anywhere works, but it takes time, and addiction is a disease, it's not a choice," Scarpace said.
He said many people use drugs to self-medicate mental health disorders like depression and anxiety they may not even realize they have. Once they take heroin, they keep taking more to try to re-create their first high and feel like they need the drug to survive, he said.
Thomas said she has seen an increase in the number of people in her program reporting heroin as their drug of choice. Treatment programs, she said, are a cheaper and more effective way to help addicts versus sending them to jail. However, she told Foster federal budget cuts have meant providers can't keep patients as long, which results in more people relapsing.
Foley applauded Thomas' recommendation for rehab instead of incarceration and added a few more including transitional programs for people leaving prison and more training for police to target drug cartels.
"Working together I really think there's hope, there's healing from this addiction," she said. "And we can make it happen, we just have to talk about it and work together."