KAUKAUNA – It’s been three years since Megan Kelley lost her life to heroin.
It’s also been three years since Bev Kelley-Miller was forced to start describing her daughter not as 22 years old, but as Forever 22.
In that time, Kelley-Miller has become a forceful voice on addiction and recovery, collecting and recounting stories of hope, incarceration and death in the opioid epidemic.
Less than a month after she buried her daughter, Kelley-Miller was sharing Megan’s story in a classroom. That was just the beginning.
She hopes greater awareness will mean other families don’t experience this heartbreak.
And this mom, who knows she will be grieving the rest of her life, wants her daughter to be remembered.
“If I didn’t do this, people are going to forget that Megan lived,” she said recently, a pendant of Megan’s thumbprint hanging, as always, on a silver chain around her neck. “This is a way to keep her memory alive. This is a way that being open, other people are open with me. The silence is what kills. Secrets kill when you keep this subject silent. We have to stop that silence, we have to bring it to the light. If we don’t, then more and more and more people are going to die.”
Family and friends gathered at her Kaukauna home on April 14 to remember Megan on the third anniversary of her death. They shared the last time they saw her and what was said. There were moments of levity, like when her sister played a recording of Megan laughing as she recounted a story.
It was a touching and healing experience, remembering a young woman who, as Kelley-Miller often says, was not defined by her addiction.
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From classrooms to courtrooms, public parks to presentation halls, Kelley-Miller has sought to educate anyone who will listen. She started the Megan Kelley Foundation, and Megan’s was one of 31 stories featured in a Glamour Magazine spread about the toll of opioids on women.
Despite the national conversation fueled by the opioid crisis, addiction still carries a stigma. But fellow recovery coach and advocate Nadine Machkovech sees Kelley-Miller’s openness helping others feel more comfortable saying publicly that addiction has claimed their loved ones, too.
Machkovech, who briefly met Megan in the recovery community, came to know Kelley-Miller after Megan passed away. She said she saw the power and strength Kelley-Miller had to speak out about the loss of her daughter — and why Megan died.
“Her daughter was a young, beautiful and brilliant young woman just starting at the beginning of her life,” Machkovech said. “It really kind of goes to show that this epidemic is impacting everyone.”
The public events Kelley-Miller puts together bring different parts of the community into the conversation, she said.
She’s led the charge on a host of such events, from a public lecture series to abedroom exhibit that helps loved ones identify the hidden signs of substance abuse to quilts bearing hundreds of names and faces of Wisconsinites affected by addiction in four key ways.
Machkovech noticed the number of people who attend the lecture series and want to get more involved.
“Without them, who is initiating the conversation?” she asked.
The quilts put a face on this epidemic and help the public understand how many people are affected by addiction, Machkovech said. Featured are the faces and names of those in the throes of addiction, those who are incarcerated, those in recovery and those who lost their lives.
But in this patchwork Machkovech also sees a hopeful message for people struggling with substance abuse: You’re not alone. You can be in recovery.
The quilts have traveled across the state with Kelley-Miller, Machkovech and others.
“When people see the quilts and they see how many people that we’ve lost to addiction, I certainly think it brings a different perspective to them because we hear the numbers and we hear the information sometimes on the news or maybe you even read an obituary for example, but we don’t always know who that person is or what they look like,” she said. “I think it really puts it into reality, like, wow these are real people that have real lives and real families.”
Kelley-Miller’s contacts extend beyond the Fox Cities. Jill Repp, vice president of sales and marketing at June Tailor in Richfield, received a letter from Kelley-Miller about the quilts. That letter described in detail Megan’s story and what she was trying to do. It was an easy decision to help, Repp said.
“If you look at them, it’s so profound how many people’s lives this has affected,” she said. “Is there any of us that hasn’t known someone whose life has been taken for such a terrible reason? And when I saw them, I immediately thought of two people that are no longer here that were very much a part of my life, and I felt like I have to support this.”
The company donated fabric that will make it easier to affix the faces and names to each square of the 2018 quilts.
She’s also been known to appear in the Outagamie County courthouse and write letters in cases involving drugs.
Outagamie County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Stertz primarily handles burglaries and other similar cases, and every once in a while she’ll submit a letter on behalf of a defendant who broke into a home to get money for drugs.
His impression from reading those letters is that she really wants to help. Her push for treatment is a reminder that it’s not just about punishment but what happens once that person is released, he said.
“She’s done an excellent job of reminding everyone that the defendant is an individual who’s got an addiction, who’s sick and who needs help,” he said. “And it’s not just a burglar or just someone who robbed a liquor store, or whatever they did. They’re someone who did it for a reason that we need to take into account.”
Her personal connection to this issue helps give perspective to prosecutors and judges.
“It’s real easy to see the crime rather than seeing the people or see just the defendant and not see the impact on the community as a whole and on the families,” he said. “You see a guy who’s addicted to drugs and stealing from his neighbors. You don’t always think about mom and dad, who are doing everything they can and just don’t know how to help.”