August 2015

By: Jessica Jones-Gorman

After seeking help for their 25-year-old son who was battling addiction, one Monmouth County family quickly realized that there were few, overcrowded options in the state of New Jersey. So they took it upon themselves to build a sober living facility that would serve as a respite for addicts and a safe space for them to heal. But two months before the project was completed, their beloved “Tigger” succumbed to his dependence and died of a heroin overdose.

Devastated by the loss of their son, but knowing that there were still scores of others like him who needed help, the family pushed forward. And in 2013, Tigger House Foundation was launched. “Within the last four years, there has been a reported 240 percent increase in heroin use in just Monmouth and Ocean County alone,” noted Maurice Buki, program director and outreach coordinator for the Tigger House Foundation, which is located in Middletown and strives to combat substance abuse by preventing further deaths and devastation. “Three people die every day in New Jersey of a heroin or opiate overdose. So overdoses have now eclipsed homicides, suicides, car accidents and AIDS as the leading cause of death in this state. We're at an epidemic level right now and there needs to be better public awareness of what’s going on.”

Tigger House is a 12-bed sober living facility operated by Oxford House, a self-help sobriety group that operates more than 2,000 locations throughout the United States. The site, which has been full since its opening, is not a rehab facility, nor does it advocate any particular rehabilitation methods. What the organization does do is work with community resources, including law enforcement and hospitals, offering help and advice to local families struggling with addiction, often times providing scholarships or financial aid to those in need.

“When a family comes to us the first thing we do is direct them to a healthcare facility where they can get information and hopefully get their loved one into detox,” Buki said. “We’re not an emergency hotline and we don’t rush out and grab the addict – they have to enter a detox facility on their own. But we can help those recovering get placed in a sober living facility, which is often a difficult task. In New Jersey, it can be very difficult to find treatment and that’s where we come in to make a positive impact.”

The Foundation, which is still in its infancy, is working to raise funds to build more detox facilities in the state. They also work closely with government, law enforcement, legal and medical professionals to provide opportunities for rehabilitation. Tigger House's website, www.tiggerhouse.org, which includes heartfelt stories of addiction and loss, is aimed at keeping the public aware of the very human side of this problem.

“Public awareness is a huge part of what can fix this,” Buki said. “So it’s important for us to tell as many of those very human stories as we possibly can. We participate in as much community outreach as we can and spread the word about what we’re doing on social media because 50 percent of addicts are between the ages 18 and 25 - an age group who uses Instragram and Facebook for mostly all of their interaction.”

Tigger House also receives a lot of support from families who have been through addiction issues as well as those who are currently under the grips of this epidemic.

“They are enthusiastic about what we’re doing because they see some sort of hope here,” Buki said. “There are a lot of parents out there who are in denial, those who say ‘not my child,’ and don’t actually believe there is a problem until it is too late. But what we want everyone to understand is that addiction doesn’t discriminate. This is not just in inner cities, this is a problem that is afflicting the middle class in affluent communities and rural suburbs. It’s not just limited to a particular demographic — it’s taking out people from all walks of life.”

That’s why Buki says it’s important for family members to be aware of the tell-tale indicators of drug use and abuse.

“There will be changes in demeanor,” he said. “There will be a desire to withdraw from family and friends – those who know them best because those are the people who will pick up on those subtle changes. Slowly, the addict will change crowds, possibly lose a job, always be tired — indicators that are not always that easy to detect. And there will also be the nodding, the foot shaking and the scratching that go hand-in-hand with opiate addiction.” And Buki said many addicts will start avoiding family functions and other public events where friends and parents might notice their altered behavior.

“It’s so important when we talk about awareness to disseminate to parents that this is something that could happen to anyone,” Buki said. “So many parents believe they’ve raised their kids correctly, sent them to all of the right schools and monitored their behavior but it’s a growing problem that is affecting us all.”

In addition to having recovered addicts speak to family groups within the community, Tigger House also intends to post billboards about the problem and put together a round table focus group with medical professionals and members from law enforcement who will discuss how they can come together as a team to prevent the spread of this problem.

A Clam Bake is scheduled for October 9 in Sea Bright to raise funds for the organization and other future events include a Spring golf outing and a women's luncheon as well as a possible bike ride and fishing tour.

“This is about the community coming together for this common cause,” Buki concluded. “Together we can make a difference in preventing more senseless deaths.”