By SAMANTHA PHILLIPS
Rich or poor, black or white, any-
one’s life can be touched by the opioid epidemic.
Eric Ungaro’s family is no exception.
Ungaro, son of former Youngstown Mayor Pat Ungaro, was interviewed for “Not Far From Me: Stories of Opioids and Ohio,” a book published this year featuring stories about people of varying backgrounds who have been impacted by the epidemic.
“That’s why this book is powerful; it’s not just telling statistics, It’s telling real stories throughout the state and how [opioids have] decimated our state, even our country,” Ungaro said.
Ungaro’s brother, Sean Ungaro, died of an overdose in 2012 at age 39, and two of his uncles died from overdoses not long after he graduated high school.
In the chapter “Standing Proud,” Ungaro discusses how his family and community were affected by the opioid epidemic.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, my parents wouldn’t either,” Ungaro said. “I’m glad people today talk more openly about it ... it can ruin a whole family financially, mentally and relationship-wise.”
“I think by us being a family that at least was kind of well-known, it felt like it was our obligation to stand up and talk about it,” he added.
The trouble started when his brother was prescribed Oxycontin for hernia surgery.
“That generation was prescribed those pills and then they’d go down a road that they shouldn’t go down,” he said.
“It was hard on me... but it destroyed my parents. It’s like a dull pain. You always say there’s something I should have done. We did as much as we possibly could have, but when you’re dealing with this, it’s hard.”
Since then, Ungaro, who serves as a Poland Township trustee, started giving drug abuse presentations at schools, joined the Mahoning County Mental Health Board, became chairman of The Red Zone, a Youngstown organization that provides drug abuse and counseling services and became president of SOLACE (Surviving Our Loss and Continuing Every Day) of the Valley, which tries to eliminate the stigma around drug addiction.
Ungaro used to teach and coach football in Youngstown schools, and is now a special education teacher in Howland. He said he has witnessed the trauma children go through when their family members are addicted to drugs.
He stresses that this can happen to anyone, even young teenagers who come from good families and attend nice schools.
Ungaro hopes people will show more compassion for those grappling with opioid addiction.
“People would look at my brother and say, ‘He’s just a bum, I paid for his Narcan,’” Ungaro said. “We have a long way to go, but we are better than where we were. I hope we don’t get numb to this problem.”
Brenda Heidinger, associate director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, said it’s good to have people publicizing their stories.
“Seeing the stigma breakdown happening over the last several years has been amazing,” she said. “People are more open to solving the problem rather than worrying about what their neighbors are going to think.”
“Before, a middle-class family with some social prominence like the Ungaros would have hidden it, wouldn’t have talked about it. This can affect anyone.”
The book was edited by Daniel Skinner and Berkeley Franz and can be purchased at https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814255384.html
Heidinger asks those in need of drug abuse or counseling services to contact the board at 330-746-2959.