In the early morning hours of his 13th birthday, I held my brother’s hand as he took his final breath. Today, Charlie would have been 18.
I miss him every single day.
If you aren’t familiar with Charlie’s incredible story, I encourage you to read what I wrote a year after he died, The Gift: How Someone With 95 Percent Brain Damage Taught Me More About Life Than Anyone Else.
For the past five years, I’ve struggled with how to best honor Charlie’s short life.
It’s not like there aren’t plenty of options to raise funds in his name. I could choose a foundation for cerebral palsy awareness or foster care programs. Another option would be to one of his many special education programs. There’s also Make-A-Wish, a hospital foundation, or hospice.
I’m grateful so many wonderful organizations touched the lives of my family.
However, none address the root issue.
Ultimately, the cause of Charlie’s death was related to the brain damage he suffered at birth, a direct result of his birth mother’s substance use disorder.
From the moment he was born, Charlie was in heroin withdrawal. That’s one of the reasons I’ve dedicated so much time to supporting Emily’s Hope.
When I returned to South Dakota after my bereavement, my friend and colleague, Angela Kennecke, became a second mom to me, helping me cope so far from those who knew and loved Charlie.
Neither of us could have predicted how our lives would become intertwined in grief when Angela’s daughter Emily died of an accidental overdose just a few weeks later.
The thing is—substance use disorder creates a ripple effect of destruction among families and communities.
I used to harbor resentment towards Charlie’s nameless birth mom. How could she have done this to him? But my mindset has shifted over the years. From our Emmy-winning special on the opioid crisis to reading Angela’s many blog posts, I’ve learned the viciousness of this disease.
I got to know Emily before her death. It stood out to me that she never seemed bothered that I, along with other “news orphans,” joined their family on holidays. Emily treated me just like I was a part of her family.
My interactions with Emily helped me realize that Charlie’s mom wasn’t a bad person. She had a disease. My mother often reminded me that Charlie’s biological mother did the right thing. She left Charlie and his unnamed twin at the hospital, not discarded like trash in a dumpster. His brother, only known as “Twin Boy A,” died a few months after birth, according to Illinois DCFS records. If she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have had 13 years with the little boy who didn’t need words to find his way Into my heart.
Charlie was born extremely premature at 26 weeks. Records show he was 1lb 12 oz. at birth. Later in life, we would nickname him “lunchmeat” to explain to my other brothers how little he was at birth.
Introducing Charlie’s Fund
Over the last few months, I’ve watched Emily’s Hope develop a groundbreaking K-12 addiction prevention curriculum that’s currently being piloted in two states. The early results are promising. Age-appropriate content helps kids understand healthy choices for their brains. It’ll soon be available nationwide.
It finally occurred to me that this is how I want to keep Charlie’s memory alive. So, I’ve started a campaign called Charlie’s Fund at Emily’s Hope. I want to help create a world where no one arrives here with the odds stacked against them. Charlie was always here on borrowed time. It was the drugs that robbed him and us of a full life.
I hope you’ll join me in donating in honor of my adopted brother’s birthday so we can make sure there are fewer innocent children, like Charlie, made to suffer because of their parent’s disease.
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