Kim Pratt doesn’t believe she’ll ever recover from the heartbreak of losing her 26-year-old son, Tyler Carter, to his decade-long battle with substance use disorder. But she says her “Embrace Hope” initiative helps her move forward by honoring Tyler’s memory while serving others who are affected by the opioid epidemic.
Three months after Tyler’s death from a fentanyl overdose in December 2016, Pratt woke up with an unexpectedly uplifting idea. She would commemorate his 27th birthday by collecting 27 “comfort bags” to give to children in foster care. Although Tyler never had children, Pratt learned over the years that the foster care system had swelled with kids whose parents struggled with opioid dependency. The prospect of helping someone else’s child, even in a small way, helped her face May 31 – the day Tyler was born — with a sense of hopeful anticipation, instead of dread.
She reached out to the Department for Children and Families (DCF) office that serves Franklin and Grand Isle counties, which gave her use of the community room in its St. Albans building for the Embrace Hope event. DCF also sent letters to foster and adoptive families inviting them to attend. That first year in 2017, Pratt collected far more than 27 bags. Each was filled with a blanket, a water bottle, a book and a stuffed animal.
Donations of new clothes, socks, toiletries and craft and school supplies also came pouring in. The children were invited to fill their bags, or backpacks or decorative boxes if they preferred. Over the past three years, Embrace Hope has distributed more than 200 bags and boxes full of gear. “Their mission to support families affected by substance use has helped over 75 children benefit from these events,” says Sarah Sargent of DCF.
Joining Pratt in organizing the effort are her mother, sister and Tyler’s best friend Beth Parker, an LNA at UVM Medical Center’s Medical Intensive Care Unit, where many of her colleagues have donated items and funds to help purchase supplies.
“It’s just spreading kindness. I think donating to Embrace Hope makes people feel good because it gives them something they can do that’s positive in the face of these tragedies,” says Pratt, who has also held back-to-school donation events.
Adds Parker: “Though the loss will never go away, seeing others build from our grief makes all the difference and helps with relief.”
“Embrace Hope” is also a message Pratt and her supporters have literally been spreading far and wide – they hide stones painted with the words in parks and other public places to be discovered by someone who may be struggling. One woman got in touch with Pratt through her Embrace Hope page on Facebook to thank her because the day she found her stone she was dealing with an addiction-related challenge in her life and really needed it.
Tyler’s 10-year addiction struggle began when he decided to try a pill someone offered him at a party. The year was 2006, long before the general public was fully aware of the dangers of experimenting with painkillers from the family medicine cabinet. He was a kind, smart 16-year-old who loved snowboarding and fishing and had a circle of good friends. “He had five core friends who tried it, and Tyler and another friend got hooked. At some point, when the pills got expensive, he turned to heroin,” Pratt says. “Some people are just wired to become addicted. It’s like the lottery. He couldn’t stop.”
Tyler did try to stop, and Pratt and her husband and their extended family tried to help him stop. He was treated with suboxone and completed rehab in Vermont, as well as at a long-term facility in California. He got clean and relapsed multiple times. Pratt says he faced a lot of stigma and dealt with a lot of shame.
“People were really stereotyping the ‘druggies.’ And I did the same thing. Even when Tyler was going to rehab I would say, ‘Oh, well my son is different.’ But no. No one’s different. No one’s better, whether they grow up in this family or that family. They’re all good. They just have a horrible disease.”
Several of Tyler’s peers near his home in Georgia, Vt., got caught up in opioids too, Pratt says: “Every road I go down around here I can pick out a house with someone who is dealing with being an addict still. It’s an epidemic. It’s all around us.”
Pratt has been pleased to hear from some of Tyler’s friends who are in recovery and have built happy lives. One friend named her son after him and another decided to become a counselor in his honor.
“When other parents who have lost children to addiction ask me, ‘How do you cope?’ I tell them that if you can think of something to do for someone else, it really helps,” she says. “It could be just a smile.”
This story was reported by Kim Asch, with the UVM Health Network.