As she addressed Wednesday’s heroin forum, Ana Ibarra asked her three children to stand on the stage next to her.
They assembled around a graduation portrait of their brother, Juan, who died in August after a heroin overdose. Juan's sister stood on one side, his two brothers on the other. A gap for the portrait between them.
“That gap,” she told the crowd. “That’s what we’re feeling at home.”
Juan Ibarra Jr. graduated early from Romeoville High School last year. It was all part of his plan to start taking classes at Joliet Junior College, transfer to Purdue University and then become a lawyer. He had a plan, Ibarra said.
But on Aug. 19, Ibarra heard the scream of Juan’s aunt struggling to wake him. She ran to his room and tried to wake him, but Juan didn’t respond to her. When the paramedics arrived, Ibarra was forced to leave the room. Her children cried. Her husband screamed to be allowed near his son.
The paramedics told her Juan was dead. She started screaming.
Juan’s absence is surreal, she said.
“It feels like I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and he’s going to walk in my room and talk about all the things that happened to him or he wanted to do that day,” Ibarra said.
Ibarra said she knew Juan smoked marijuana, and she fought constantly with him about it. He said it was a phase he was going through. He had it under control. That he used heroin is “unreal,” she said.
“He wasn’t a troublemaker,” Ibarra said. “He was a clown. His goal in life was to make people laugh. He was such a good kid, but he became troubled by life.”
Ibara said Juan wanted to enjoy the world. He had a list of things he wanted to do at least once, like jumping out a plane and riding the highest rollercoaster. He truly believed he was invincible, she said.
He wanted to be a lawyer to fight for the rights of others. He had a slogan, she said: “I will fight for you.” “He was going to make T-shirts and commercials with his slogan,” Ibarra said.
Juan wanted to have an office in downtown Chicago, "wear fancy shirts, nice shoes and smell good." He would travel the world, get married after he turned 30 and have two kids, a boy and a girl. He would have a nice car and a big house to have his family over for the holidays. He would coach his children’s sports teams and go to their games.
“All those dreams have been taken away,” Ibarra said. “If this happened to Juan, who was such a good kid, it could happen to anyone.”
Ibarra is committed to spreading the word to other parents about the heroin epidemic. Juan was one of 30 people who died in Will County last year from heroin overdose. More than 40 are expected to die this year. Just 15 years ago, one or two overdoses would have been surprising, said Will County Coroner Pat O'Neil.
Det. Kelley Henson, the police liaison officer for Romeoville High School, said she's fired up now. She told the students at the forum she was going to fight to save their lives.
The epidemic didn’t become real to her until she saw Juan in his casket. She met Juan's mother at his wake.
"This brave woman held me in her arms because I felt like I had failed," she said at the forum. "I'm angry now."
Check back on Monday for more information on the heroin epidemic and the alarming rise in heroin overdoses in Will County.
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