Updated: April 17, 2018 09:50 AM
On a cool late October day, Deb Noethe and her husband Tom load dozens of backpacks in the back of a pickup. They're filled with toiletries, snacks, hats and mittens. Deb hopes they may also contain a lesson or two.
She calls them blessing bags. They're meant for people struggling with homelessness and addiction in Grand Rapids.
"I hope and pray that they go to the people that really need them," Deb Noethe said.
The inspiration for the bags, however, comes from pain.
"Every parent's worst nightmare, and it happened," she said.
Deb's third son, Garret Bethke, struggled with addiction for 10 years.
"It started using oxycontin," she said. "A friend had given him one, and he liked the way it felt. That was how he explained it to me."
He eventually got hooked on heroin. But he's not what you would picture when you hear the phrases "heroin addict" or "drug user." Garret loved music, art, baseball and fishing.
He told his parents about his struggle with heroin about five years ago, in 2011. He was 23 at the time.
"I couldn't believe my son was a heroin addict," Deb said. "Any mother that has gone through this or parent says exactly the same thing. I had no clue. I had no clue. That's what's scary about it."
They immediately got him in to treatment, but in this round, he wasn't going for himself.
"He told me ... the only reason I went to treatment was because I did it for you. Because he knew I was so scared. He did it for me," Deb said.
The treatment never seemed to stick. The longest time he was clean was 60 days during his last stint. He would relapse over and over.
"If the person doesn't want to go to treatment, what good is it going to do when he gets to treatment?" Tom Noethe asked.
But years later, in 2014, Garret was ready to go. He was living at home, working at his mom's gardening business and waiting for a bed to open up.
"I thought, Oh, this is going to be the time," Deb said. "I think he actually thought, I think this is going to work. I'm going to try really hard."
He knew it would be difficult. He'd been there before. During one clean period, he wrote a letter breaking up with heroin. One line read, "Please don't try to get ahold of me. I won't answer to you anymore. We are done forever."
This time, in October 2014, seemed different. Garret was 28.
Through the years of her son's addiction, Deb slept with her cell phone under her pillow just in case.
"You're always in the back of your mind, this can happen," she said. "But you say, it's not going to be my child."
Yet six days after Garret was released from the halfway house in St. Cloud, Deb got that dreaded call in the middle of the night.
"Fifteen minutes later, the police were knocking at my door," she said. "That's exactly how I played it in my head. That's exactly what happened. 'I'm sorry to tell you your son has died.' I said, 'Overdose?' And they said, 'yes.'"
Deb said she went numb. But she woke up to a bitter truth that night.
"Drugs don't care, heroin doesn't care. They'll take everything from you, and they'll take your soul," she said. "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter."
This October marked the second anniversary of Garret's death. Friends and family gathered at his grave to remember him. As the song "Dancing in the Sky" played, emotions were raw.
Still, Deb spoke through her tears, recounting the lessons her son has taught her about who addicts really are.
"Most addicts that I know and I've had the privilege of calling my friends are the kindest, most loving people you'd ever meet in your life," she said.
They're people like Garret's friends Melissa and Michael Lane. He met the two through using.
"He was the man. Really, he was a cool person," Michael said. "But I don't know. They say the good die young, I guess. I don't really know."
Deb said Garret would remind her addiction is an illness and should be treated that way.
"He'd say, 'Mom, they're addicts just like me. They're not bad people, they just have a really bad disease,'" Deb recalled. "Hate the addiction, love the addict."
Deb took that advice. She loves these people she used to kick out. She has welcome with open arms the very people who shared in the drug culture that led to her son's death.
"It's just weird how everything happens," Michael said.
"We adopted her, she adopted us," Melissa added.
Both Michael and Melissa are now three years sober. Other of Garret's friends are turning the corner too. A woman at the cemetery on the anniversary of his death announced she'd been sober several months. Deb's reaction was priceless. She went straight for a hug.
"I'm so proud of you," Deb whispered to her. "Garret's helping, he's pushing you."
Those moments aren't easy. She couldn't save her own son. But Deb has no intention of giving up on the family she's adopted.
"I don't know what the answer is," she admitted. "But if you can save one family from this horror, that's what we're going to do."
That explains the backpacks, or blessing bags. The packs were donated by local organizations, and the foundation Deb set up in Garret's honor, the Garret Bethke Foundation, buys the toothbrushes, lip balm, snacks and water inside.
The group that gathered at the cemetery caravanned to Veteran's Park. Michael, Melissa and the others who had used with Garret showed Deb which spots would be best to leave her blessing bags.
"It's pretty crucial to do stuff like this. This is really pretty amazing," Michael said. "I'd have been happy as hell."
"I would have been surprised that somebody actually cared, you know? I would have been thankful," Melissa, who was homeless at one point, said.
This isn't the conclusion of Deb's lesson plan, though. She hopes to share her story with children in schools this winter. She also wants to train people on how to administer Narcan, a drug that can reverse an overdose.
"A lot of things need to change, and it's not going to happen overnight," Deb said. "But if we can just do this, just do these little kind things, it will help people, I believe."
She believes addicts like Garret deserve better.
"There's hope, and there's help," she said.
She has resources for families, friends, addicts and whoever may need the help on the Garret Bethke Foundation's website.
Updated: April 17, 2018 09:50 AM
Created: November 23, 2016 08:22 PM
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