During a stint in a New Hampshire sober house, Jenna Tatro told her mom, Dawn, she wanted to help other people get sober. She had a knack for helping new arrivals feel more comfortable, a gift for sticking with them as they went through withdrawal pangs and doubt, helping them to see that one more day sober is one more day further from the last time they got high and one day closer to health, happiness and clarity.
Jenna died of an overdose Feb. 15, 2019. She was 26.
The next day, if everything had gone according to plan, would have been her 60th day sober. She died on the basement floor of the family home in Johnson just hours before her parents would take her to rehab to start the 60-day process again. Little by little, Jenna’s sober periods had lasted longer.
Dawn remembered one day Jenna called her from rehab and told her that the people who were coming in were destitute and “desperate to get clean.”
“She goes, ‘You know what? We’re going to make a difference,’” Dawn remembered. “She goes, ‘I’ve got to be here nine months. When I get out of here, we’re going to go around schools and we’re going to educate kids to tell them my story.’”
Greg and Dawn Tatro started a nonprofit, Jenna’s Promise, to fulfill their daughter’s wishes.
They hope to turn St. John’s the Apostle Church in Johnson village into a treatment center. Details about what the center would offer are numerous and yet to be determined. But everything has to start with a place, and they think they’ve got the perfect one.
St. John’s is where Jenna was baptized and where the family attended Sunday services. It’s since been de-consecrated, and Jenna’s memorial service was held there. Hundreds of well-wishers turned out. Some spoke, in whispered tones, to Greg and Dawn — “My son is also an addict” or “my daughter is an addict.”
Gaining the blessing of the Catholic diocese has come with some hurdles, but Jenna helped out in that regard. Dawn brought her daughter’s senior portrait and plunked it down in front of the bishop when negotiating the purchase of the church, so the bishop could see the face behind the initiative.
Jenna’s Promise has an advisory board that the Tatros hope will guide the mission, while professionals run the operation.
Greg said Jenna was always something of a daredevil, “always on the edge of safety and not safety,” whether it came to skiing, snowmobiling, four-wheeling, riding horses, driving cars.
“I think that personality is probably what helped her get to the addiction phase in her life,” he said, with Dawn adding, “She got hooked on the edge.”
Tales of addiction are rife with origin stories of doctors giving out too many opioid painkillers to treat injuries. In this case, the daredevil didn’t hurt herself.
An ex-boyfriend beat her up on Christmas Eve six years ago, and she ended up in the hospital and left with 30 days’ worth of painkillers. The parents aren’t sure how many refills the hospital gave her, but by the end of them, their daughter was an opioid addict.
Jenna had been carrying a 3.8 GPA at college, contemplating a career in the medical field. How ironic, then, that doctors provided the key to her eventual demise. In her journals from the time, Jenna wrote about “the kicks and the bruises” and the “lights that came” with them.
“And then she went to the emergency room and she found a little pill, and she never went back to school,” Dawn said. “Just taking that pill, everything was all better.”
Six years later, Jenna seemed to really find her calling at Granite House for Women in Concord, N.H. But a few days before her death, she called her mom to say she’d left the treatment facility.
She insisted she hadn’t been using, had just gotten tangled up again with the drug traffickers. The family went to bring her home, but didn’t know the bad guys had hooked her up with drugs.
“For the first couple days, she was kind of like Jenna. And the last couple days, you could see she was using drugs again,” Greg said.
Her parents say toxicology reports indicate she ingested a large amount of fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that some drug dealers put into heroin and which often results in overdose deaths.
“I just prayed she’d come back,” Dawn said during a lengthy conversation the day after Mother’s Day at their home in Johnson, thumping her hand on the kitchen table with every syllable. Her eyes darted over to the basement door, the movement jostling tears loose. “I mean, we’d been through it how many times, and we were so close. And I just couldn’t believe that God was going to take her.”
“You just don’t know what it’s like to find your daughter dead on the floor in your house,” Greg said. “Nobody does. And you work on her for 20 minutes, giving her Narcan, CPR. I knew about 10 to 15 minutes into it that we’d lost her. I didn’t tell Dawn. I kept working on her, but she was gone.”
A few weeks after her death, Dawn went downstairs to the basement. The closet door was partly open and there was a letter from Jenna to her mother, written in verse.
Dawn read the letter as a thank you note, not a farewell.
“I felt like she was maybe saying she was finally getting through this addiction,” she said.
Over the years, the Tatros had done “the tough love thing,” kicked their daughter out of the house, cut off financial support. Yet through it all, she called her mom, her best friend, just about every day.
On the other hand, she stole money from them, about $10,000 one year. And that’s on top of more than $150,000 the family spent trying to get her clean.
“When you’re an addict, all you think about is, you need that next high,” Greg said. “It doesn’t matter how you get it, it just means you’ve got to get it. So, they’ll steal from their parents or grandparents or brothers, sisters, uncles, any family member, anybody who has money anywhere, they steal it because the opiates have hijacked their brains. And that brain is just telling them, it doesn’t matter if you’re hungry, if you’re stealing or whatever it is, you got to get this drug into my body right now.”
The most frustrating part about drugs coming into the community, for friends and families of addicts, for law enforcement, for treatment and recovery folks? They largely know who’s bringing them in, and how they’re doing it, but they can do little about it.
Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux used to work as a DEA agent, and he said it’s frustrating because, “given my background, I know what to do, but ...”
“The situation is, I’m dealing with the laws that are there now. They are a challenge, but the bigger challenge is the lack of resources,” Marcoux said. “We have to go through the procedures and the rules, and these people are empowered by going through it and getting off on technicalities.”
Marcoux is on the advisory board for Jenna’s Promise, and the Tatros are working with the sheriff on an upcoming opiate summit at Lamoille Union High School near the end of June.
“They are two very, very intelligent people, and I’ve known them for many years, and I’ve known Jenna’s struggle,” Marcoux said. “It’s so very, very hard to be trying to save your child’s life when you’re dealing with people who have no regard for other people’s lives.”
Greg isn’t the tallest or biggest man in Lamoille County, but his neatly trimmed mustache quivers and his jaw muscles clench when asked if he ever wanted to take revenge.
“We’ve got a good family. I’ve got a good job, we do well, live a good life. And I can’t lose all that over some drug dealer,” he said about taking justice into his own hands. “I’d lose everything I’ve worked for forever. And I’d lose my son, my grandson, my wife.”
Greg and Dawn have since celebrated their 33rd anniversary. Their son, Gregory, reconciled with his sister before her death. She was the best aunt in the world, they all say.
No shame with addiction
Greg knows that, as a successful business owner — G.W. Tatro Construction is one of the best-known outfits in northern Vermont — his reputation is tied tightly with his family business’s reputation. But he wasn’t shy about letting people know his daughter was an addict. No need to keep it quiet, he said. It’s a disease.
Jenna’s obituary, penned by her brother Gregory, approached the addiction head on, interweaving it with love and affection. The Tatros said people have come out of the woodwork, asking them for advice. Everyone knows an addict.
Over the years, the family tried treatment centers all over the country, from New England to California to Minnesota. Greg said one early lesson they learned in Minnesota is to not be ashamed of your loved one being a drug addict, “because it’s a disease.”
“If it was cancer, or diabetes, or whatever, you would freely talk about it. And ever since then, I told people, yeah, my daughter’s an addict,” he said. “It wasn’t her fault. I don’t know how many times she would look me in the eye and say, ‘you know, Dad, I don’t want to be a drug addict.’”