Bill Ayars wanted so much to believe that his daughter, Jennifer Emerald Ayars, could get it all figured out and conquer her addiction.
“As a parent, I would tend to focus on the behavior,” Ayars says. “Just stop doing that. Go get help. Quit hanging around with those people. You need to change. Never really accepting addiction as a disease was my biggest misconception on how I thought we needed to be working on this.”
Ayars lost his daughter in 2016 to a drug overdose. She was 28. He took some time to process what had happened and decided he needed to do something to help others find the answers about addiction that he could not.
“We don’t know what the best treatment is,” says Ayars, co-founder and co-owner of Perspectus Architecture in Cleveland. “If there was a proven approach, everybody would be using it. It varies for every individual. We thought the only thing we could do is think of it from a family’s perspective and try to locate the resources that would be available to them.”
The Emerald Jenny Foundation is a nonprofit Ayars founded that offers a searchable, statewide online database for those seeking treatment and other resources for opioid addition in Ohio. It contains more than 1,000 resources that have been compiled one person, one group at a time.
“There’s a dedicated group of people who are making the calls, going through the questions and then they fill out this matrix,” Ayars says. “We started in Cuyahoga County and then made a commitment to Northeast Ohio by last May 14, which was Jennifer’s birthday. That’s when the website went live. We made a commitment to finish all of Ohio by next May 14. We’ve accomplished that.”
Opioid addiction has been making headlines all across the nation for the devastating impact it has had on so many families. But Ayars made a point to develop a website for the foundation that wouldn’t add to the anxiety of those who come to it.
“We’re not showing statistics or scare tactics,” he says. “We spent a lot of time on the design of the website. There were huge conversations about what the feel should be. I even thought, ‘You have to get their attention.’ But we’re not going down that road.
“It’s about softly showing someone how to go from darkness to the light. It’s very subtle in its appearance, but it’s trying to help people move toward something. Reaching out is a difficult experience.”
‘Almost like a dream’
Jennifer always had a mind of her own, Ayars says. She loved to cook, write, create and design, and she was a loving friend and family member. Yet, her addiction was always lurking in the shadows.
“It started with experimenting in high school at a fairly young age,” Ayars says. “When she finished high school, she went to culinary school in California. There wasn’t much contact with her on a regular basis. But at times, either via her mom or her sister, I’d hear, ‘I think she’s partying too much.’ But when I would see Jennifer, she always seemed fine.”
At one point, her sister, Jackie, brought Jennifer to her home in Colorado.
“Jennifer was the older of the two and of course, she wouldn’t listen to her sister,” Ayars says. “Her sister couldn’t control her. It’s almost like a dream. You’re in the middle of this and nobody has a clue what to do. Jennifer moved back to Cleveland in the fall of 2015.”
It didn’t take long for Ayars’ partner, Susan Tarry, to see Jennifer had a serious problem.
“I think I was still oblivious to what a difficult time she was having,” Ayars says. “But Susan said, ‘This is not good.’ We started talking to people and making phone calls.”
The difficulty that Ayars and his family faced in trying to find a place that could help their daughter would ultimately be the impetus for The Emerald Jenny Foundation.
“It’s really difficult to make decisions,” Ayars says. “Where to call? Who to call? We just found that the avenues or the ways that you can begin researching would get overly complicated very quickly. If you don’t know what drugs they are using and you don’t know the terminology, in many instances, you run into roadblocks. You’re like, ‘I don’t know.’ That was the reason for creating the foundation.”
A pathway to help
When Ayars thinks of his daughter, he recalls her big heart and the fact that in the midst of everything she was going through, “she never lost her moral compass.” They would have conversations and Ayars just wanted it to be like the interactions any father and daughter would have with each other.
“She was trying,” he says. “She would hang with people who seemed to need more help than she did. When we’d get together, we didn’t dwell on the drugs. I know she felt guilty about it and I know everybody else was all over her about it. I guess I felt our time together was more about taking a little time to talk about other things.”
His goal with the foundation is to give families dealing with addiction a clearer pathway to find help.
“Our goal is that if people are starting to discuss this more openly, we can enhance that conversation and make it clear that it’s OK to talk about it and seek advice,” Ayars says. “In the past year and a half, I believe I’ve only talked to one person who hasn’t been touched by this. Yet, there isn’t a lot of conversation. We’re doing what we can to allow it to be a topic of conversation.”