After son dies of overdose, Promise to Jordan is born
Updated: Oct 1
• Today Magazine received an SPJ award for this story in 2021 — it was first published as a cover story in March 2020 and continues to be relevant today
By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
THE FACE OF the nationwide opioid crisis is a paradox — incognito, on the one hand, yet not hard to spot.
The face of the opioid crisis could be your next-door neighbor or close friend… or your child or spouse … or perhaps staring back at you in the mirror.
Lisa Gray knows the heartache of seeing the opioid crisis in the face of her son, Jordan Jeffrey Arakelian. Jordan died of an accidental overdose of the opioid drugs heroin and fentanyl in June 2018. A Simsbury resident, he was 24.
One month later, A Promise to Jordan was born.
The nonprofit, founded by Gray, aims to raise awareness and eradicate the stigma of addiction and mental health issues. Further goals include helping people find quality care and giving hope that recovery is possible for those who struggle with addiction.
“I tell everyone, addiction does not discriminate,” says Gray, a resident of Simsbury since 2000. “If it can happen to our family in our town, it can happen to anyone. … No one would have looked at us and thought for a second that we battled addiction in our family every second of every day.”
Gray and her family have made a significant investment in Simsbury.
She became the executive director of the town’s Chamber of Commerce in September 2014. She previously owned a Simsbury-based travel consulting business, Travel Talent, for eight-plus years. Her husband Gary Gray, Jordan’s stepfather, is a Simsbury police officer. Jordan’s father, Jeffrey Arakelian, was a Simsbury resident for many years.
Lisa says that people have thanked her “for the courage I’ve shown in talking about my son’s addiction on social media, in his obituary and in his eulogy — and my response is always that if we don’t talk about it, nothing is going to change.”
Since establishing A Promise to Jordan in 2018, Gray has fulfilled the responsibilities of what are essentially two full-time jobs. To resolve this impossible quandary, she announced in January that she will resign from the chamber.
HEART OF THE MATTER
“I count my five-plus years with the chamber as the best in my entire career,” wrote Gray in a letter to chamber members. “This was not an easy decision for me to make as I feel I have found a second family here at the Simsbury chamber, but I believe I must follow where my heart leads me. ... There are lives at stake that need me to fight for them.”
As president of A Promise to Jordan, Gray has been vocal about her family’s ordeal — and about her hope for education and change that can prevent further opioid-related deaths.
A Promise to Jordan “has tremendous potential … to make a real, meaningful difference in the nationwide opioid crisis,” wrote Gray, who will stay with the chamber through June if needed. “I believe I have an obligation to my son and so many others who have died or who are now struggling with addiction to use my skills to bring about positive change in this arena.”
Gray certainly has allies in fighting the substance use and opioid crisis.
Several members of local Rotary and Lions clubs are part of a unique joint initiative, the Rotary-Lions Addiction Task Force — co-chaired by Canton resident Maria Coutant Skinner (of the Avon-Canton Rotary Club) and Avon resident Heidi Zacchera (president of the Avon Lions Club). Natasha Haims of the Avon-Canton Rotary is also on the task force.
Zacchera taught physical education and health in the Canton public schools before her retirement, and she has overseen a Canton school program called Esteem that seeks to prevent substance abuse.
“It has been awesome to work closely with Maria,” says Zacchera, a native of Avon. “I had her [two] daughters as students in Canton.”
Skinner is the executive director of the Torrington-based McCall Center for Behavioral Health, a nonprofit agency focused on recovery, prevention and community.
“My [McCall] team and I have examined this public health issue in great depth,” says Skinner, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in social work. “It is a devastating epidemic that has impacted every aspect of our communities. Therefore, the solution must involve and engage every one of us.”
Skinner has volunteered for the Canton Youth Service Bureau and is co-chair of the Litchfield County Opiate Task Force.
“What heartens me about this [Rotary-Lions] initiative,” she says, “is that we have been able to answer the question so many wonderful people have asked — that is, what can I do to help? Our clubs are working to publicize ways that every one of us can help … and offer a path to health.”
Skinner identifies several practical ways each of us can address the opioid scourge:
• Discard unused medications at a drop box in a police station or with a Deterra pouch, a patented disposal bag that deactivates leftover drugs, preventing misuse.
• Lock up medications in use.
• Work to reduce stigma by learning the root causes of addiction and understanding that this disease can be prevented and treated.
• Talk openly with our kids, families, friends and co-workers about substance abuse issues.
The Rotary-Lions Addiction Task Force has “made an impact,” Zacchera says, by offering the Deterra pouch to local pharmacies and by hosting a February forum, Addiction in the Workplace.
“What I love about [the task force],” Zacchera notes, “I believe it is one of the first times that Rotary and Lions have combined their efforts in this manner. … We were able to hone things down to focus on the home, workplace and community, and what we could do to make a difference with the opioid crisis in these different areas.”
The Canton-based Farmington Valley Health District is likewise fighting the good fight by offering educational programs about substance use and related issues.
The statistics related to drug overdose fatalities are sobering: 70,237 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2017, the most recent year for which stats are available, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — an increase of 9.6% from the previous year.
Opioids were involved in 47,600 (or 67.8%) of those deaths. Further, prescription opioids (including methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone) were involved in 35% of opioid overdose deaths in 2017, per the CDC.
“There are lives at stake that need me to fight for them” — Lisa Gray
Connecticut is one of 23 states — 21 are in the eastern half of the country — that saw numerically significant increases in drug overdose death rates in 2017. Opioid overdose deaths in Connecticut have increased by about 40% since 2015.
Jordan, a 2013 graduate of Simsbury High, was one of 1,000-plus Connecticut residents who died of substance use disorders in 2018, Gray says.
She notes that accidental overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. Recent statistics show that opioid overdoses are causing more deaths nationwide than motor vehicle accidents and gun homicides combined.
Gray is candid about the harrowing story of the day Jordan died … but of course the story starts years earlier. When she began raising her three sons — Jordan (the oldest), Austin and Adam — the opioid crisis wasn’t on her radar.
“Their father and I chose to raise them in Simsbury because of the great neighborhood we found and the town’s reputation for an excellent education system,” Gray says. “The boys were 6, 2 and 7 months when we moved in. I never dreamed that, 18 years later, I’d get that call.”
Gray was at Stop & Shop on Saturday, June 30, 2018, when her cellphone rang. Austin was distressed: “Mom, get home now — Jordan OD’d again and he’s purple!”
“I left everything in my cart,” Gray recalls, “and literally ran out of the store and raced in my car to get home as quickly as I could. All I kept thinking was, ‘Please let him be OK, please let him be OK.’ It was truly a parent’s worst nightmare.”
By the time she returned home, Jordan was gone.
“It was his 14th overdose in two years,” she says. “Somehow, by the grace of God, someone had been in the right place at the right time 13 times previously and he was able to be revived with the use of naloxone. That 14th time, though, he died alone inside our family minivan in the driveway of our home. I will never get that vision of his body out of my head.”
Later that day, Gray posted on social media, cautioning other families to be vigilant about the disease of addiction. The next month, she formed A Promise To Jordan.
Through this vital nonprofit in honor of her fallen son, she continues to encourage vigilance — and to fulfill a hope and a vow that her son’s death won’t be in vain. +
Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is an 11-time award-winning journalist
• This story received a third-place SPJ Award in 2021 in Connecticut's Health Story magazine category • SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists
• This article first appeared as the cover story in the March 2020 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication