Last month, family and friends of Jason Witler, a 2011 graduate of Syosset High School, gathered at the high school baseball field to celebrate the life of a young man who died this past April from an accidental overdose of a drug laced with fentanyl. The event, the Jason Daniel Witler Memorial Home Run Derby, raised funds to support the work of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, Long Island’s leading children’s mental health agency, which has an outpatient adolescent chemical dependency program.
Three of Jason’s closest friends—Ashley Sullo, Jordan Slavin and Max Ferro—came up with the idea of the Home Run Derby shortly after Jason’s death, explains Slavin, who had been close to Witler since kindergarten.
“Several of us talked about getting together to share memories of Jason, but we realized that he would want us to do something to make people in the community happy, because he loved to make everyone laugh and smile,” Slavin said. “We also wanted to raise money for an organization that was important to Jason and his family that provides help for people struggling with addiction.”
The trio asked their Syosset High School classmate and Nassau County Legislator Josh Lafazan to help, and he was quick to join the effort, which drew more than 100 attendees.
“I am overwhelmed with gratitude to all who came out to show support and participate in the Jason Daniel Witler Memorial Home Run Derby,” Lafazan said. “Working with community partners, we were able to raise thousands of dollars in Jason’s memory to support the critical work that North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center does on Long Island.”
The Journey Of Addiction
According to Bonnie Witler, Jason’s mother, her son’s addiction issues began in his mid-teens. “One night, Jason came home after being out with his friends and my daughter came running into my room and said, ‘Mom, come downstairs! Jason’s barred out.’ I had no idea what she meant, but later learned it meant he was high on Xanax.”
For her part, Witler’s sister Dana had seen many friends with addiction issues, so she knew the signs when she saw them in her brother. “Addiction devastates families,” she says. “It usually starts small, with drugs like Percocet and Roxies [both opioids], but eventually they move on to cheaper and easily available drugs, even heroin, because they don’t have the money to keep up with it.”
Sadly, Witler’s addiction struggles are all too familiar for many families on Long Island and across the country. According to government reports, nationwide overdose deaths reached a record 93,000 in 2020. On Long Island, fatal drug overdoses rose 34 percent in Nassau and nearly 12 percent in Suffolk, and many experts believe the pandemic played a role in that increase.
Our country has been facing a worsening and deadly overdose epidemic for the past several years, and fentanyl—the drug responsible for Witler’s accidental death—is a huge factor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl was involved in more than 60 percent of nationwide overdose deaths last year.
“Fentanyl is a powerful pain pill that’s being cut into heroin, cocaine and other drugs,” says Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, Director of the Leeds Place, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center’s Westbury facility that houses its outpatient chemical dependency program. “It’s up to 100 times stronger than morphine, which makes it extremely cheap—and extremely deadly.”
Mental Health And Addiction
Witler’s family sought help from a variety of addictions specialists during his teens. After a year-plus stretch in inpatient rehab, he returned to Syosset High School in his senior year, to the delight of his many friends. He was sober—but Bonnie Witler soon realized that her son’s issues were complicated.
“As we were getting ready to shop for Jason’s senior prom, he had a meltdown,” she explained. “I took him to the emergency room, and they said he’d had a manic episode.”
This was the first time anyone had suggested that Jason had a mental health condition. “I then knew that he’d been misdiagnosed most of his life,” says Witler.
Indeed, mental health challenges and addiction struggles often go hand in hand, says Taylor-Walthrust. “With the increased number of youth and adolescents seeking treatment for co-occurring disorders, the most effective outcome is to treat both disorders simultaneously,” she explained.
Witler eventually moved to Florida for treatment, and Sullo, Jason’s girlfriend from Syosset, moved down to live with him. He got a job in real estate, and his life seemed to be on the right track.
“Jason was doing so well,” Sullo said. “He was clean and sober for five years, and he was dedicated to helping others stay drug-free. He was such a kind soul.”
She shares just one example: “Jason saw a guy he knew from a 12-step meeting at a gas station, and the kid didn’t look well,” Sullo recalled. “Jason made a point to get his number. For weeks, he called him every day, and they went to meetings together. He really cared about other people.”
A Mother’s Grief Turns To Activism
No one is sure what happened that caused Witler’s relapse, according to his mother and friends. The pandemic isolation may have been a factor, they say, but that’s only a guess.
As for Bonnie Witler, who moved to Florida a few months prior to Jason’s death to be near her son, her devastating loss has been made more bearable by her new role as an activist in the battle against addiction and the fentanyl crisis.
“I call myself a MOM, for ‘Mom on a Mission,’” Witler said, who is an active participant in various committees focusing on substance abuse, mental health and the fentanyl crisis. Witler was honored to be included in Sober House Task Force meetings created in July 2016 by Palm Beach County State Attorney General Dave Aronberg. The task force’s work has led to new regulations of sober homes and treatment centers in Florida that have become the model for other states.
Witler, who recently appeared on WSVN news channel in Florida, is also working with the head counsel of the American Medical Association to lobby congress to pass legislation related to the fentanyl crisis.
“Although many drug users have heard about the dangers of fentanyl, their addiction is too strong,” Witler said, “They are playing Russian Roulette.”
She adds that, because of fentanyl, “drugs are now weapons of murder. Dealers are actually charged with homicide.”
Acknowledging the widespread impact of addiction, Witler’s sister Dana said, “This is not just a Witler family problem, it’s a community problem, and that’s why sharing his story is so important. People need to realize that there’s help out there. We need to end the stigma, so people don’t think they have to handle this all alone.”
A Community Comes Together
The Jason Daniel Witler Memorial Home Run Derby provided a wonderful opportunity for Jason’s friends and family to comfort each other and to honor the life of a young man who cared deeply for others. The community responded in a big way. That day, more than $8,000 was raised, but through the generosity of the incredible people who made contributions in Jason’s memory before and after the event, the total reached more than $35,000, which will support the Guidance Center’s important work.
Ken Witler, Jason’s father, was awed by the large turnout. “It was all because of the hard work of Ashley, Jordan and Max, along with Josh Lafazan and his staff.” He added, “We’re glad that the proceeds will go to the Guidance Center, knowing they will be used to help kids and families struggling with addiction issues.”
Bonnie Witler says that she was “elated” for most of the day at the memorial, as so many young people and parents approached her about how much they felt her son was a part of their family and that “they loved having him around, with his great smile and big laugh.”
By the end of the day, however, the grief overcame her as she explained, “It comes in waves, and you have to feel your feelings.” But she feels best when doing all she can to prevent other families from undergoing the tremendous loss that she and her family now live with every day.
“The pain of losing a child is so enormous that some days I just don’t think I can make it,” she said. “But if I can help another life, it gives me reason to go on. Maybe Jason’s life will save hundreds of others.”
—Jenna Kern-Rugile is the Director of Communications at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center