A daughter's overdose death leads to 'The CALLing'
At 9:02 a.m. Feb. 14, 2018, Mike Straley got "The CALL" that forever changed life for him and his wife, Robin.
"The CALLing" is what the Greencastle couple has done following the death of their 26-year-old daughter, Leah Renee Straley, from a fentanyl overdose on that Valentine's Day morning.
"The CALLing" also is the title of his book about their daughter, her struggle with addiction and quest for sober living, her death, their grief and how Leah's Legacy Foundation is truly her legacy.
"If this book helps maybe a father, mom, sister or brother going through this, it was worth writing," said Mike, who worked with Christian Faith Publishing on the book, which came out this spring.
Mike, executive director of the Fulton County Medical Center Foundation in McConnellsburg, was in his office when his phone rang at 9:02 a.m. on Valentine's Day 2018. It was a call from the medical center's front desk. Two Pennsylvania State Police officers were there and wanted to see him, he recounts in the first chapter.
They asked to meet with him privately. He took them to a conference room, and they told him of Leah's death early that morning in Delray Beach, Fla. She was visiting a friend she had met at a sober living facility in California.
He writes heart-breakingly of the drive from McConnellsburg to the Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, where his wife works in advertising, and telling her, "We lost her, Rob. We lost her. We lost Leah."
"I'm laying it all out there ... sharing Leah's journey and being as transparent as possible," Mike said in a recent interview.
That forthrightness strikes nerves when the couple speak to women in sober living homes while distributing Leah's Legacy bags.
"Recovery stories are great, but over half a million died (of opioid overdoses) in the last decade," Mike said. "Families are grieving and hurt. We share the impact on us as parents. It can be raw for them."
"We're very transparent and open to discuss anything," Robin added. "Our visits and talks linger amongst residents. They continue to hold conversations long after we have left."
'If it weren't for Leah ...'
Mike and Robin were supposed to have dinner with Leah in Delray Beach on March 1, 2018, but instead they held her memorial service at Covenant Life Church, Hagerstown.
Two testimonials Pastor Tim Fisher shared at the service showed them a side of their daughter they did not know about.
One woman Leah met in sober living facility in California wrote, "If it weren't for Leah, I wouldn't be where I am today. There were countless times I wanted to leave and just give up, but Leah was always there to guide me back and help me through some of the most difficult times of my life."
The owner of a sober living home in California, a mentor and friend of Leah's, wrote, "Without exception, when we would have a new client, who was scared, nervous about being sober or just being in a new environment, Leah would be who I would turn to. She would welcome the newcomer with open arms, never having met her, yet greet her with her endearing smile, soft voice and that gentle way about her. Leah had a positive genius for making others who suffered from her same addiction feel safe, welcomed and accepted."
After their loss, the Straleys looked for different ways to cope — family and friends; support groups; talking with other parents; getting involved in Brooke's House, a sober living home now open outside of Hagerstown; and participating in addiction education events.
Knowing how Leah helped others in sober living combined with memories of a call from her just before Christmas 2017 led to the creation of Leah's Legacy bags and the nonprofit Leah's Legacy Foundation.
Two months before she died, Leah called her parents from a sober living home and excitedly told them about the Christmas gift bag she received from a church group. It contained a purse loaded with toiletries and other personal care items, gift cards, winter gloves, hat, scarf and more.
"We needed to recreate the bag and serve others like she had been served," Mike writes.
The bags are purple — Leah's favorite color and the color of overdose awareness. They are filled with personal care items, pens and notebooks, snacks, socks and other items and are intended to provide hope, joy and love to women in sober living homes and support groups. Many women enter sober living homes with nothing, the Straleys explained.
They initially stored supplies and packed the bags in their home, but in October 2020, the Leah's Legacy Operations Center opened next door, behind his parents' home on Grant Shook Road.
The COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on distribution of Leah's Legacy bags, but provided more time for fundraising, and when the center opened it had been wholly paid for with donations and gifts-in-kind.
After restrictions eased in November, the Straleys made up for lost time, visiting five sober living homes in five weeks, including two in one day. To date, they have distributed more than 300 Leah's Legacy bags.
The book talks about addiction, recovery, relapse, their struggle to do the right thing, find the right help, the right rehab, Robin said.
"We couldn't fix Leah, Leah had to fix herself," Mike said.
"Leah said that many times, 'Mom, this is not your problem, it's my problem,'" Robin said. "But as parents you always try to help."
Leah helped women in sober living homes with encouragement, and Mike said, "I think she would be proud of what we're trying to do."
Readers of "The CALLing" learn about the final days of Leah's life and Robin's persistent, but unsuccessful pursuit of charges in the chapter titled the "The Investigation."
They get eye-opening lessons in "Addiction Education 101," which begins "Addiction does not discriminate" and concludes "The years 2010-2020 — the decade we lost half a million Americans to the opioid crisis."
Good times and bad with "Leahbug" are remembered in the chapter bearing her name.
The couple's love for their daughter is evident throughout the book that concludes with the chapter "Agape Love."
Agape love is selfless love, love that takes action, courage, strength and sacrifice, Mike writes, applying each of those words to their life with Leah and their life since her death.
"Agape love is always loving our daughter, Leah Renee Straley, forever twenty-six, who has provided us with the action, courage, strength and sacrifice to do the right thing, to be our best and to help build better futures for women who want to lead drug-free and productive lives."
"I want to speak to people — groups of people — from school assemblies to people in recovery to grieving parents," Mike writes in the chapter "What's Next."
"I will travel to share Leah's story, our story as parents ... I want to share what Robin and I are doing. I want to share this book. I want to listen to parents who carry the same burden. I want to share their tears. I want to give them a heartfelt hug. I have a message and I want to share it with the masses ... I let my heart carry the message. It is, after all, the heart that has the hole and needs mending."
Mike will be signing copies of "The CALLing" at the following:
- Home Run Derby event to benefit Noah's House, Norlo Park, Fayetteville, Saturday, Aug. 7, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- State Line United Methodist Church, Sunday, Aug. 8, 10:30 a.m. (discussion and book signing)
- Greencastle-Antrim Chamber of Commerce, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 4 to 6 p.m. commemorating Overdose Awareness Day
- Sober September Challenge, Cowans Gap State Park, Pavilion #4, Saturday, Sept. 25, 4 to 7 p.m.
To schedule a book signing or speaking engagement, call 717-552-8885 or email MLStraley81@gmail.com
Copies of the book are available to purchase on the home page of Leah's Legacy Foundation, www.leahslegacy.net, through PayPal.
Books also can be ordered by sending a check or money order payable to Leah's Legacy to 10631 Grant Shook Road Greencastle, PA 17225, along with the shipping address.
The cost is $20 plus $4 for shipping and handling.
"Robin and I are on the road to recovery, not from addiction, but the experiencing the loss of our daughter," Mike wrote. "We will never fully recover, but we want to offer hope and love to the millions of grieving parents and women in addiction. It is what Leah Renee Straley would want us to do."
Where to find help
Franklin/Fulton Drug & Alcohol at 717-263-1256 or email@example.com
PA Get Help Now, 1-800-662-HELP (4357).