MIDDLETOWN As Christian Peter spoke about the mission, his message was delivered with all the intensity of a nose tackle playing for the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, and all the knowledge only a recovering addict could possess.
The passion in Rick and Lisa Stavola’s words, as they sat nearby, traced back to a journey that ended tragically two years ago when their son, Rick Jr., died of a heroin overdose at age 25.
Together, they help form what could be a formidable team.
On Friday night, the Tigger House Foundation — Rick Jr.’s nickname was Tigger — will hold its first major fundraiser at Edgewood Beach & Cabana Club in Sea Bright.
For Rick Stavola, vice president of the Tinton Falls-based Stavola Cos., this all started out of necessity.
"My son was in the drug court program, and part of drug court is that he had to live in a sober living facility, and there wasn‘t any beds available," he said. "So while my son was still alive, I said I would build one."
Tigger House, a 12-bed facility in Middletown, opened two months after his son’s death.
Now it’s about raising awareness about opiate addiction, including pain
"It doesn’t discriminate," said Peter, who grew up in Middletown and played six seasons in the NFL, including four with the Giants. "With my upbringing, why me? I had everything I wanted. The best schools, a loving, caring family. The exact same thing Tigger had, and we’re not the only ones. I think a big part is the education and letting them know there is a place to go. These aren’t bad people trying to get good. These are sick people trying to get well. We want to provide an opportunity for them to get well."
Peter first met Tigger while working out in a local gym, not knowing the battle he was waging. He eventually became his sponsor, recalling his first sit-down with the family at their kitchen table, where he talked well into the night about his personal demons and how alcohol and pain
It all seemed to relate. And while Peter — sober for eight years after relapsing when his playing days ended in 2002 — didn’t have personal experience with heroin, he dealt with his younger brother, Jason, a former first-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers who became a heroin addict after getting hooked on painkillers in the NFL.
"I remember Jason’s first words he ever told me about it," Peter said. "He said he thought he had kissed Jesus Christ. That was the feeling. And I know what it did to Jason; I know how it affected the family and everyone around him. That he’s still alive is a miracle. There were numerous times my brother Damian and I went looking for him, kicking the door open to his apartment and finding him passed out.
"I know what Lisa went through, the sleepless nights, because I saw my mother experience it. And the same feelings my father had is what Rick went through."
Lisa Stavola knows firsthand what it’s like to have nowhere to turn, because that’s how she felt for seven years with her son. The calls to police to have him arrested because jail was a better option. The trips to emergency rooms ill-equipped to deal with the problem. The inner workings of a legal system that shut her and her husband out because their son was an adult, even though he was in distress.
"Your child goes to detox, then he goes to rehab, then he runs away from rehab and you’re bringing him home," Lisa Stavola said. "What are you doing with him? You’re home and you’re keeping your fingers crossed, and you’re screaming and yelling and you’re pulling your hair out, and your kid is banging his head against the wall. You go to a therapist, and they tell you to go to three AA meetings a day. You’re going to tell a 17-year-old to do that?"
"That’s not going to happen." Peter interjected.
"That’s for the child who has already bought in and knows there’s going to be work," Lisa Stavola continued. "But that doesn’t happen in 30 days, which is about all most insurances will pay for, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance."
The hope is that the foundation can help fill in some of the gaps in the system in dealing with opiate addiction.
Led by program director Maurice Buki, who has experience in both law enforcement and as a drug and alcohol counselor, the foundation is equipped to do assessments, determine needs and find solutions in a short period of time — before it’s too late.
"That’s what Tigger House is all about: the public awareness and being able to supplement the recovery through donations," Rick Stavola said.
It’s also about breaking the silence.
Rick Stavola lost his older brother, Frank, to a heroin overdose 19 years ago.
"When someone said, 'Oh, your brother passed away,' it was, 'he had a heart attack.' ” Stovla said. "God forbid I said he passed away from drugs."
"I was pretty open with my situation with my son from the start, because I lived through Rick losing his brother," Lisa Stavola said. "Back then everything was very hush-hush, the old Italian family. But hey, it’s okay to talk about it or ask somebody. Like the people who are calling us now, because there’s nowhere to call. I know, because I had nowhere to call."
It’s already paying dividends.
"The other night I got a phone call from a friend of a friend whose daughter was strung out on Xanax, Oxycodone and Ambien in Florida," Rick Stavola said. "Most times parents have no idea what to do. The hospitals aren’t prepared to cope with that. Maurice was able to speak with her, got her calmed down, and we got her parents to put her on a flight. She’s getting picked up (Wednesday), and we got her a bed in a detox facility."
Anyone interested in donating or assisting, or is in need of immediate help, can go to their website at www.tiggerhouse.org.
"If we can help one kid, save one family, we did our job," Peter said. "An hopefully we’ll help a lot of families."