In the realm of substance misuse prevention and mental health wellness, some champions stand out for their dedication, resilience, and unwavering commitment to making a difference. Paul and Ellen Schoonover are two such individuals whose journey in advocacy has left a permanent mark on the surrounding community. Prevention Action Alliance (PAA) was honored to present them with the prestigious Hope Taft Award for Advocacy, a recognition to highlight substance misuse prevention champions.
In this blog post, we delve into the Schoonover's inspiring story, their involvement with PAA, and the lasting impact of their work.
“We were so touched and humbled to receive the Hope Taft Award, knowing what a champion Hope Taft was for prevention even before the opioid epidemic. She was seeing what others weren’t. To be associated with her name is an honor. We are so grateful and thankful to be given this award”
“It was a healing project [...], and as it came to fruition, Paul and I hand-delivered them to funeral homes and our Franklin County Coroner. They were sent out to all on The G.A.P. Network roster and have since been distributed to countless conferences and families."
Accomplishments and Impact
Looking back on their journey, Paul and Ellen take immense pride in several accomplishments. They have worked tirelessly to share Matthew’s story and to break down the stigma surrounding substance misuse and mental health. Their advocacy has allowed them to provide hope and support to countless individuals struggling with grief and substance misuse.
Getting Involved with Prevention Action Alliance
Paul and Ellen Schoonover's journey into the world of prevention advocacy began with a profound personal tragedy. Their son, Matthew, struggled with substance misuse and ultimately lost his battle in 2012. Paul responded immediately, “We were not going to let Matthew die in vain.” To make that a reality and as a place to put his anguish, Paul got quickly involved with Tyler’s Light, eventually leading him to Prevention Action Alliance. He crossed paths with Marcie Seidel, who introduced him to PAA, and about a year later, Ellen joined him in this mission by becoming involved with The G.A.P. Network.
Paul Schoonover furthered his commitment by becoming a member of the PAA Board. Ellen later joined the PAA Board, solidifying their connection to PAA.
Involvement in The G.A.P. Network
Paul and Ellen's contributions to The G.A.P. Network have been extensive and impactful. They served on The G.A.P. Advisory Council, attended workshops, and played pivotal roles in organizing grief conferences. These conferences were instrumental in providing support and resources to families who had lost loved ones to overdose. In addition to planning conferences, the Schoonovers assisted in developing The G.A.P. Network’s Grief Resource Packet.
“Looking back at 2012, there was not much news about heroin. A couple of years later, it was everywhere. [After Matthew died] I was googling heroin and reading articles from New Jersey, not Columbus, Ohio. Everyone’s response was, ‘Heroin? What do you mean heroin? Where did he get it?’ Paul and I decided that we were not going to let stigma stop us from sharing his story.”
The Schoonovers chose to share Matthew’s story at his funeral, something not commonly done at that time. Ellen then became involved with TAP United and performed a presentation at the More Than A Number event about “Stigma versus Truth.” This performance calls out the stigma around substance misuse and presents the truth of who these people were. They are more than a number; they had hopes and dreams; they had big hearts; they matter. Ellen has since shared that presentation around Ohio; it is now available in video format. You can view it here.
Paul took to sharing his story with patients at the Woods at Parkside (the rehabilitation center Matthew attended) every month for 6+ years. Paul's powerful story of a broken-hearted father resonated with many, and at the end of each talk, he gave out orange wristbands to everyone. Those orange wristbands have served as a reminder and an encouragement to remain in recovery. One story that stands out is that of a young woman who, in a moment of weakness, was on her way to her drug dealer. In her car, she looked down, saw the orange wristband, and remembered Paul's story. At that moment, she thought, “I cannot do that to my parents.” She later returned to the Woods at Parkside to share her story with Paul and thanked him for saving her life.
Paul and Ellen have spoken at various conferences and schools, shared their story with the Columbus Dispatch, CBS Sunday Morning, and through the book “Dreamland,” and come alongside countless parents who have also lost loved ones to substance misuse. They hope that by sharing their story and framing addiction as a disease, not a choice, they will help others navigate those challenging times.
Finding Strength and Resilience through Faith, Family, Friends, and Purpose
The advocacy journey is emotionally demanding. But Paul and Ellen always come back to their faith and their family and friends, and they try to remain focused on their purpose to give them strength. Ellen emphasizes that grieving is not a sign of a lack of faith. Rather, faith provides the foundation upon which they build resilience. Their family and friends, Matt's friends, and the support of their community have been invaluable. Finding purpose in Matthew’s death, their advocacy work, and sharing their story has been another source of strength and resiliency.
Leaving a Legacy
The greatest legacy the Schoonovers said they could leave is the Matthew B. Schoonover Educational Center. The center was dedicated on December 5, 2017, serving to honor not only Matthew, but all those who have struggled with substance misuse. The center serves as a reminder that every individual is more than just a statistic – they are people with dreams and hopes.
“I am a big believer that when you see a face with that name, your heart is more involved. So anytime someone walks out of that door from prevention training and sees Matt’s picture, they think, ‘OK, this is for all those people who are out there struggling.’ “
Advice for Those Who Have Lost Loved Ones to Substance Misuse
It would not be a blog post about the Schoonovers without having the opportunity to share some of their valuable advice for individuals and families. Below are the top pieces of advice the Schoonovers say they always share.
- Never say, “It won’t happen to my child.”
- Avoid reinventing the wheel. Many parents who have lost a loved one to substance misuse want to start an organization in their child’s name. While that is a good goal, it is also a lofty goal and often unsustainable, which can leave people feeling discouraged and burnt out. If your community has a great organization, collaborate with them.
- Find a role that aligns with your personality and strengths. Don’t try and do it all; otherwise, you will get burnt out.
- Prioritize addressing your grief before embarking on advocacy.
- Educate yourself about substance misuse and engage in open, fact-based conversations with your loved ones. Avoid scare tactics.
- Start conversations about substance misuse and mental health within your family to create an open and supportive environment.
Paul and Ellen Schoonover's advocacy journey is an inspiring testament to the power of turning personal tragedy into a force for good. Their work continues to break down barriers, support grieving families, and advocate for substance misuse prevention and mental health wellness. We are honored that they continue to choose to be a part of Prevention Action Alliance and know their work now and their legacy will undoubtedly inspire future generations to play their role in prevention.