JOHNSON – Greg Tatro remembers it feeling like “torture” watching his daughter struggle with opioid addiction. For six years, she was in and out of more than two dozen treatment centers across the country.
“It's like being on the worst roller coaster you could ever imagine, because when things are good, you're up here and then all of a sudden, you crash to the bottom,” he said.
Thoughts of her safety and whereabouts were always on the minds of the Tatro family.
“It never leaves you, and at nighttime when the phone rings – you're right on it,” he said. “It could be your friend calling just to talk but until you hear that voice, you're like, ‘oh my God.’”
On Feb. 15, Jenna Tatro died of an overdose at the family home in Johnson. She was 26.
Now her parents are working to fight opioid addiction in the area in their daughter’s memory. Greg and Dawn Tatro have started Jenna’s Promise, a nonprofit organization which is establishing a community-based recovery center to fight addiction.
The family is turning the former St. John the Apostle Church into a community space. The building is where the Tatros were married, Jenna was baptized and her service was held.
The plan is to turn the main floor into a space for events for people in treatment, music, speakers, fundraisers and meetings. The bottom floor will be turned into a recovery center operated by the North Central Vermont Recovery Center. The goal is to begin holding events in the former church – now known as Jenna’s House – in November.
The Tatros also hope to purchase other buildings in the community to create recovery housing. They are closing on a building on East Main Street, where they hope to operate a cafe to reintegrate people in recovery into the workforce and have housing or office space upstairs.
The organization has an advisory board to guide the mission and the plan is to have staff run the organization.
Greg Tatro describes Jenna as a caring person who had a penchant for “living on the edge” when it came to skiing, horseback riding, snowmobiling and driving cars.
She graduated from Lamoille Valley Union High School and was pursuing a pre-med degree with a concentration in psychology at Johnson State College, now Northern Vermont University.
When her boyfriend beat her up six years ago, her parents said, she went to the hospital where she was prescribed 30 days of opioid painkillers for bruises. She became hooked on the pills.
“She just was one of those people that had that addictive gene,” Greg Tatro said during a lengthy interview at the former church. “And once she crossed that line she couldn't get by.”
Tatro suspects fentanyl — a synthetic opioid more powerful than heroin — is ultimately what killed Jenna. That drug was a factor in three out of four opioid-related deaths last year, according to data from the Vermont Department of Health. Fatalities from fentanyl have nearly tripled since 2015.
“That addiction was so strong that she just couldn't get away,” he said.
Drug manufacturers sold more than five million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills to pharmacies in Lamoille County between 2006 and 2012, analysis of data by the Washington Post shows. That’s in a county with a population of just over 25,000.
Once Jenna became hooked from her prescription, she cycled on and off of substances despite efforts to recover from what medical experts describe as a disease.
Dawn Tatro said it was hard to find space for her at a recovery treatment center in Vermont. The options were limited and almost always full, which prompted her to seek treatment around the country, as far away as California.
“The part she always felt like she lacked was her family being there to support her and there were no sober homes really here available,” Dawn Tatro said.
She said it was hard for Jenna to avoid people who could push her back into using when she came back to Johnson. One goal with Jenna’s House is to create a space where people can find help.
“When they want to get help, we’ve got to get them there immediately. And then we’ve got to have, when they get out, a place for them to go so they can have this positive environment and support.”
Tatro said her daughter called home from a treatment center and told her about people coming in who were desperate to get clean.
“She said, ‘We’re going to help someone when I get out. We’re going to raise money.”
That promise has fallen to her parents who have launched the nonprofit with a name referencing her wish to help others struggling with addiction.
Fighting the stigma of addiction
Addiction to opioids and prescription painkillers is a major public health challenge in Vermont and around the country. In 2014, Gov. Peter Shumlin declared the situation a “crisis” and “epidemic,” and made the issue the focus of his State of the State address.
The number of deaths from opioids has increased steadily over the past five years. In 2018, 110 Vermonters were the victims of accidental and undetermined opioid-related fatalities.
The southern part of the state, Washington County and Chittenden County have seen the highest number of opioid-related deaths over the last few years.
Rep. Daniel Noyes, D-Lamoille, said the community is lucky to have the Tatros take the lead in creating private-public partnerships to address addiction.
“I think that they’re trying to understand where the pieces are that we already have in place and where the gaps are in services,” he said.
Noyes said the issue of opioids and addiction in the county is not always visible. But it’s affecting people across all ages and felt in several ways, including a reduced workforce.
“I’m sure we see people all the time in our community who are in recovery, somewhere in between using and recovery and using,” he said.
Dawn Tatro said when Jenna was in recovery she applied to work in sales at a local car dealership and felt like she “nailed the interview.”
“As she was walking out she heard someone say, ‘We're not going to hire her, she's a druggie,” she said.
The judgment devastated Jenna. Her mother thinks she might have stayed sober if she was given the employment opportunity. But the rejection sent her back into a cycle of judgement and questioning her self-worth.
The Tatros are meeting with business owners to create partnerships to employ those in recovery and help restore their sense of self-confidence.
They are starting with a building in Johnson village, and hope the cafe based there will eventually sell coffee with the Jenna’s Promise labels in stores to help fund the nonprofit. That business will be staffed by community members going through treatment.
Barry Cohen, who sits on the organization’s advisory committee, said people need to be educated to view addiction as a disease.
“If you're an employer, you probably have people with substance abuse disorder working for you already, and they're not in treatment. What would you prefer to do: hire somebody who's on the street that has substance abuse disorder, or hire somebody with substance abuse disorder that's in treatment?” Cohen said.
Noyes said the stigma around hiring those who are fighting or have recovered from substance abuse disorder is strong. He said employers often fear these prospective employees could be unreliable or overdose on the job.
“It’s important that people have a job and self worth, one of their big things is bringing people into the workforce,” he said.
'You don't have to whisper'
The former church where the organization is based was purchased entirely with Jenna’s life insurance for $235,000, leaving an additional $55,000 from the claim for renovations. The Tatros say it really is Jenna’s House – since her money purchased it.
Jenna’s Promise has already received more than $65,000 in donations and is working with state legislators and Vermont’s congressional delegation to apply for grants. The projected cost of renovations for the building’s two floors is $495,000.
The Tatros have received hundreds of sympathy cards, many with checks to go towards the project. Words of support have come from political leaders at home and nationally. Gov. Phil Scott has spoken with the Tatros about their project. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., sent a video message to the family.
Much of the work on the building is being donated. A local musician is giving his time to improve the main floor’s acoustics, a community member created the website for free, while another volunteer will be installing handicap-accessible bathrooms. The Department of Corrections is donating labor to fix up and paint the outside of the church.
The project is waiting on an Act 250 permit to advance further. The application was handled by a St. Albans company that donated their services.
Daniel Franklin, executive director of North Central Vermont Recovery Center, said his staff is “really stretching the limits” of the current facility and could benefit greatly from expanding into Jenna’s House. He thinks it could be an example for other rural communities around the state.
The center hopes to offer some of its current programming – such as recovery coaching – plus offer exercise space and increased art and wellness offerings. That might include community meals, gardening and cooking classes. The possible expansion is contingent on funding being secured.
“We have a lot of projects ongoing and Jenna’s Promise is certainly part of that where all these efforts are coalescing on leaders coming together to address the issues of our day,” Franklin said.
The recovery center has seen more than 4,500 people so far this year, and about 1,000 of those clients are suffering from opioid use disorder.
“Opioids are a major issue, access is easy, it’s around us and it’s prevalent,” Franklin said.
“The rural communities are increasingly affected by a slew of drugs.”
Franklin said abuse of alcohol and other substances remain higher in Lamoille and are often paired with mental health issues. He said opioids are capturing public attention because of the immediacy the drug has in killing people.
In Lamoille County, like other rural areas around the state transportation to treatment and services – along with limited recovery housing – remain barriers for those battling addiction. Medication assisted treatment and support meetings can often be an hour drive away.
“It’s extremely difficult being as rural as we are having the meetings and doctors appointments so spread out and limited,” Franklin said.
Jenna’s Promise has already begun to help by providing financial support to two Vermonters currently in treatment for substance abuse disorder.
Greg Tatro said part of the problem in the region is that people affected by opioids are “embarrassed” and don’t want to talk about it. He hopes the family’s efforts to share their story will encourage others to do the same.
“What we're saying is it's OK to talk about this addiction disease. You don't have to hide, you don't have to whisper, you can speak loud and clear and not be ashamed,” he said. “It's not your fault, we’ve got to get through that part of this.”
In a small village where people say just about everybody has a family member or knows someone who has been affected, the Tatros have been leading the charge.
“The community's waiting for somebody to stand up and lead, and they found somebody in unfortunate circumstances,” Greg Tatro said. “We evolved into them – those people – we’re not going to stop. It's just the way we are.”