Less than a year after his son’s death, Jack Wilcox and his daughter Connie Quigley are making something good out of a sad situation.
Wilcox’s son, also named Jack, was living in Dayton, Ohio, with a friend when Jack was found dead last November, a needle on the ground beside him. He died Nov. 27, 2015, the day after Thanksgiving, of a heroin overdose. He was 37 years old.
The loss of a father, brother and son was a shock to everyone — no one knew Jack was taking the drug. He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for 12 years, but everyone thought he got clean. His death was devastating; his father spoke with him the day before, and they promised to call each other once more during the weekend — a call they never made.
The funeral and cremation arrangements took a toll on the family for a while, but Wilcox chose not to let the tragedy keep him down.
“I promised my family I was going to do something; I wasn’t going to let his death go in vain,” he said. “I didn’t know what exactly I was going to do at the time, but I had to do something.”
He had found Facebook pages that were support group pages, but there weren’t many places where people could regularly gather. So Wilcox came up with the idea to start a support group for anyone who has lost someone to substance abuse.
“I had thought of making a support group, but I couldn’t find a place to hold a meeting,” he said. “I prayed to God asking for some kind of sign. I drive a bus for Madison County Transit, and my route takes me through Anderson Hospital in Maryville. When I was coming out of the parking lot one day, I saw this great big sign with big words saying ‘support group.’ I came home and called Alton Memorial Hospital, and with just one phone call and two emails it was a done deal.”
Jack and Connie spoke of the need for more resources — for people struggling with addiction as well as for people who have lost a loved one to drugs or alcohol. This need for resources has led Wilcox and Quigley to make that one of the group’s goals. To Wilcox, the faith-based organization’s main goal is to get people together to share with and learn from one another to work toward getting through the pain and agony of losing a loved one.
“I kept hearing about all of these stories of people in deep depression after they’ve lost a loved one,” Wilcox said. “I don’t think your loved ones would want you to do that, and the way to get away from that kind of depression is to be around other people, especially ones that understand what you’re going through. I want to get a fellowship of people together that can talk about their experience, strength and hope, and we can feed off each other, learn from each other and grow from there.”
Wilcox and his daughter spoke of how their faith kept them strong during the hard time. Pastor Daren Carstens of Enjoy Church, among many others from the church, helped the family during its struggles and encouraged the idea of the support group.
At a recent service, Carstens even mentioned the group to the church, which took Wilcox by surprise.
“Enjoy Church was there for me in an instant and continues to give support and encouragement,” Wilcox said. “I was religious before my son’s death, and my faith continues to help me with my troubles. Without my faith, I would’ve been a basket case.”
Wilcox’s faith even helped with the name of the organization. The Christian hip-hop artist TobyMac’s song, “Move (Keep Walkin’)” spoke to Wilcox, inspiring the name of the support group: Just Keep Walkin’, Steps to Freedom.
While the organization is faith-based, the family welcomes anyone.
“We want to reach out and help anyone that we can through the support group,” Quigley said.
Wilcox has continued not to let a bad situation get the best of him. Chestnut Health Systems and the Lincoln Challenge Academy of Rantoul have hosted Wilcox as a speaker, and he speaks of his 20 years of recovery, the death of his son and the heroin epidemic. He also plans to continue being a mentor at the three-month boot camp for at-risk youths at Lincoln Challenge Academy.
“Eighty percent of heroin addicts that overdose have been prescribed to painkillers from their doctors, and when they’re taken off the prescription, they’re still addicted to the opiate that’s in those painkillers, so they go wherever they can to get what they need,” Wilcox said. “There’s other painkillers out there without opiate in them.
“The other thing is, treatment facilities are full and making people searching for help wait for weeks at a time until they’re able to get in, when in reality if they’re searching for help they usually need it right away.”
The family’s biggest dream is to create a foundation in honor of Jack and others who succumb to substance abuse. Ideally, they imagine the name being the Just Keep Walkin’ Foundation.
“We would want to enlist the help of doctors and physicians, and even start our own rehab center,” Quigley said.
For now, the Just Keep Walkin’, Steps to Freedom support group is all that is definite. The group will meet at 6:30 p.m. every Thursday in the meeting room behind Cafeteria B at Alton Memorial Hospital.
“I want people that come to the group to feel better when they leave the meeting, a sense of relief of the bondage of grief, shame and especially remorse,” Wilcox said. “I hear a lot of remorse from a lot of people, wishing they would have done something different. The fact is that it’s too late to do something about it now; it’s a process of letting go of that and moving on with living life on life’s terms. Together we as a group can find freedom in the Steps to Freedom.”