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11-year-old who lost dad to drug overdose: ‘Help me stop this epidemic’

October 11, 2018

After he spoke to members and alumni of the Law Enforcement Youth Academy in Aurora on Wednesday about losing his father to an opioid overdose, 11-year-old Keagan Hernandez, right, visits with academy members (from left) Ethan Chase, Angel Ochoa and Emily Leonard.

The first time I met Keagan Hernandez he impressed the heck out of me.

The sixth-grader from Aurora, Ill., wanted to meet in late August to talk about his father, Ryan Borchardt, who died last fall at age 28 from a heroin/fentanyl overdose, and just as importantly, to let people know about the 5K Run for RyRy he was sponsoring to bring awareness to the opioid crisis.

FYI — that fundraiser, which will take place from 8 a.m. to noon Oct. 27 at Waubonsie Lake in Aurora, is shaping up to be a success, with a couple hundred participants already signed up for the run that will benefit the Man in Recovery Foundation, which helps provide funding for addiction treatment.

I saw Keagan and his granddad, Paul Borchardt, again recently at the Aurora Police Headquarters on Indian Trail, where they were handing out flyers for this upcoming 5K. But the main reason they were in the APD’s large community room was to speak to three dozen teens — from schools in Aurora, Oswego, Elgin, St. Charles, Plainfield and Montgomery — about his father’s life and death.

These students were members and alumni of the Law Enforcement Youth Academy, a popular program sponsored by Aurora police and the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office that helps break down barriers between cops and kids and also provides a boatload of training to help them be more successful.

Keagan was there to remind these future community leaders just how far-reaching this opioid crisis is right here in our Fox Valley communities, and to let them see up close just how heavy a toll it can have on families caught up in it.

Beyond his years

I thought Keagan was impressive at our first meeting. But standing behind a podium almost too tall for his 11-year-old body, Keagan was not in the least intimidated as he looked straight into the faces of his older audience and talked about a subject that far too many adults out there consider off-limits or taboo.

“You are the next generation of cops,” he told them. “Help me stop this epidemic.”

Then he spoke in detail about his dad’s addiction — from how he started out with pot as a Waubonsie Valley High School sophomore, trying to fit in with the older varsity lacrosse players, to his six-year on-and-off battle with heroin that he waged even while working full time, earning a master’s degree and co-parenting the bright little boy who had made him a teenage dad.

And with some help from his grandpa, Keagan described that horrible Sunday morning on Oct. 29, 2017, when his grandparents, failing to rouse their son for a family outing to watch a Bears game, had to break down the bedroom door only to find his lifeless body inside.

“I was sobbing,” Keagan recalled when he later learned his dad had overdosed. “I don’t get to see him … ever. I missed a lot of years. But he was sick.”

‘It takes courage’

It will remind you of just how bad this epidemic has gotten that an 11-year-old boy feels it is his duty to try and stop it.

“He should not know about all the things he had to talk about,” noted a St. Charles East High School girl whose best friend “is battling addiction” and whose younger sister already is asking questions about the drug use she sees among her middle-school classmates.

These high school kids all agree — there is a drug epidemic in every school. And there is no question kids are beginning to experiment at a younger age. Which is why the teens and adults in the audience strongly encouraged Keagan to continue making his voice be heard, especially among his own peers.

“It takes courage to do what you are doing,” a Marmion student told him. “Your father would be proud of you.”

Keagan knows that. It’s one of the ways he copes with such a monumental loss at such a young age.

“I love him. I miss him,” he said when describing the close bond he had with his father.

“I’m happy my dad is in a better place … but I am sad I cannot see him.”

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