Chocolates, personal care bags help parents with their grief
"Nothing has been or ever will be the same" for Mike and Robin Straley since Valentine's Day 2018. That's when they lost their 26-year-old daughter, Leah, to a fentanyl overdose.
"We can't do anything the same, we can't do family holiday dinners, I don't feel like we can celebrate," Robin said.
The couple spent Thanksgiving Day making and packaging Christmas orders for Brooke's House Chocolate.
Brooke's House Chocolate is one of three avenues where women will be able to learn a skill at the planned sober living home near Hagerstown.
Involvement in Brooke's House and its chocolates is an avenue for Robin to deal her grief, while Mike's is Leah's Legacy bags.
"You have to get busy to help or the grief will just eat you up," Robin said. "As soon as you have any down time ... driving, sitting at a traffic light ... it hits you like a door. It's such anguish to lose a child."
Robin went to Clear Spring High School with Brooke's House founder Kevin Simmers, who lost his daughter, Brooke, 19, to a heroin overdose in April 2015.
The Straley family named the house manager's room at the facility for Leah, then Robin and Mike's mother, Mary Straley, decorated it with things she loved ... leopard print, Hello Kitty, elephants and lots of purple.
Kevin's wife, Dana, invited Robin to become part of Brooke's House Chocolate and Robin is now on the board of directors for Brooke's House, which is expected to open in late May or early June on Downsville Pike.
The Brooke's House mission is "To inspire and empower women suffering from the disease of addiction by providing them a safe, stable and emotionally supportive living environment while in the early stages of recovery."
Often women entering sobriety need to find jobs to support themselves, but do not have the skills, Mike explained. If they go out in the community, they could run into triggers and relapse.
Brooke's House will have three on-site training programs: dog grooming, a hair salon and Brooke's House Chocolate.
Volunteers already have the chocolate business up and running, with sweets for sale in a cooler at the Grille at Runways in Hagerstown on a regular basis and information about orders available via Facebook. When the time comes, they will hand the reins over to the women of Brooke's House.
More information about Brooke's House Chocolate can be found at the website, designed by Robin:
Leah's Legacy bags
"Brooke's House kept Robin occupied and I needed to find my niche," Mike said.
The Straleys recalled an excited call they received from Leah at a sober living home, where she had been given a pocketbook filled with toiletries, snacks, gift cards, a hat and scarf and other items by a church group.
"I vividly recall that conversation," Mike said. "I said, "Let's recreate it and call it Leah's Legacy bags.'"
With donations from family and friends, the drawstring bags in Leah's favorite purple are filled with personal care items, notepad, journal, puzzle book and snacks ... "things we take for granted." Each also comes with either a soft blanket or a hat and glove set.
Originally, they planned to deliver Leah's Legacy bags to just Brooke's House residents, but Mike recalls being overwhelmed driving through Mercersburg one day and having to pull to the side of the road.
"A voice spoke to me, 'You need to do this for other sober living homes. Be the voice for your daughter.'"
They've already visited two places where Leah stayed during her sobriety journey, delivering Leah's Legacy bags, along with hope, joy and love.
"It was overwhelming to see the look on their faces," Mike said. "One woman was so excited, she hadn't had her own hairbrush in three months."
Overdose awareness event
Last summer, the Straleys joined forces with Vicki Rhodes, who lost her daughter, and Kelly Brown, who lost her son, to hold an overdose awareness event at the Lions Club Park in Mercersburg.
"We just wanted to bring awareness of what addiction does, to educate parents and the community," Robin said.
Between 150 and 200 people attended the event, that included information from nearly a dozen organizations, Narcan training and distribution, activities for children, food trucks and music. The evening wrapped up with a memorial service during which family and friends could say their loved one's name and light a candle.
"It was shocking to see how many people came up to the mic, especially students with lists of friends and loved ones who have died," Robin said.
This year's event will be held from 4 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, again at the Lions Club Park in Mercersburg.
"There's a hole in my heart that will never heal," Mike said, but he wants to continue to be a voice for his daughter and others struggling with addiction through speaking engagements with organizations, churches and schools.
"I want to share the message with parents and those who may be struggling that there is hope and help," he said.
He also wants to share what he knows about the opioid crisis and the stigma of addiction.
"Everyone will tell you it's a struggle every day, even after years of sobriety," Mike said. "Addiction does not discriminate."
"There are things you wish you had known about addiction prior to their death," Robin said. "I wish I had understood what she was faced with every minute of every day, fighting off the need to use. We just didn't understand the hooks it had in her."
For information on arranging a speaking engagement or contributing to Leah's Legacy bags, call 717-552-8885.