By Donald Wittkowski
Often, the obituaries for young people will discreetly note that they died “suddenly” or “unexpectedly,” without specifying the cause of death.
Tyler Onesty’s obituary also said that he passed away suddenly, but it went on to disclose that the 22-year-old Ocean City resident died “from a heroin overdose, after a hard battle with addiction.”
His mother, Sally Onesty, wanted Tyler’s obituary to be a loving remembrance of his life. But she also wanted it to serve as a blunt warning to other families about the perils of drug addiction, in hopes that their children won’t die in the same way as her son, a well-known and popular 2012 graduate of Ocean City High School.
“I think that many students and parents can relate to Tyler. I’m in the public, so they can relate to me, too,” said Onesty, 46, the owner of A Bella Salon & Spa in Ocean City.
Inspired by her son’s death, Onesty and her family are committed to fighting drug addiction by publicly speaking about Tyler’s troubles. Tyler was found dead in an Atlantic City motel room on March 7, just days after he was kicked out of a local halfway house for refusing to take a drug test, Onesty said.
The decision to go public began when the family chose to livestream Tyler’s memorial service on Facebook. Onesty described it as “a call to action” to focus attention on yet another tragic drug overdose in the local community.
“I have been wanting to be very public about it,” she said. “I really wanted to make addiction public.”
More than 2,000 people have viewed Tyler’s service online. In addition, about 3,000 people have taken to social media to share a post that Onesty wrote about her son on her personal Facebook page.
Although Tyler’s death was heartbreaking for the family, Onesty finds some solace in knowing that her son spent his last few days calling and texting his friends to warn them about the dangers of drugs.
“I think it’s a testament to my son. Even in his addiction, he was still reaching out to others and trying to get them help, even though he wouldn’t get help himself,” she said.
Before slipping into addiction, Tyler had a promising life. He was intensely bright and loved sports and music, his mother said. He began playing drums at just 3 years old. In school, his achievements included playing on a championship soccer team, writing an award-winning Earth Day poem and also winning a tri-state science fair.
“He had a lot of accolades,” Onesty said. “He was also very giving. He always wanted to help somebody. He was always the kid who stood up for somebody else.
“He was a smart kid. He was also very well-liked. You could see that at his funeral,” she continued, noting that the service was packed.
Tyler ran into trouble in his senior year at Ocean City High School, when he was arrested for dealing a large amount of marijuana, his mother said. His downward spiral continued when he apparently began using the opioid painkillers OxyContin and Percocet at about 19 years old.
A serious car accident in 2015 landed him in the hospital, where he was given the powerful painkiller morphine. Onesty believes the morphine was a gateway drug to Tyler’s heroin addiction.
The family went through drug intervention in an effort to save Tyler. Starting in 2014 and continuing to 2016, his family placed him in drug rehabilitation centers in New Jersey, Florida and California. Still, Tyler couldn’t shake the addiction that would eventually kill him.
In the aftermath of Tyler’s death, Onesty has teamed up with addiction expert Tonia Ahern, an advocacy field coordinator for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Ahern, of Upper Township, is also a recovery coach for the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and an advocate for Parent-to-Parent, an organization that offers support and treatment for drug addicts and their families.
Ahern, noting the stigma of drug addiction, particularly when it involves heroin, stressed that many families are reluctant to confront the problem and seek treatment.
“People do recover. It’s treatable,” said Ahern, who has a son in recovery. “The more people we treat, the more we can save.”
Nationwide, an average of 144 people die each day of drug addiction, Ahern said. She described drug addiction as a growing problem in Cape May County, including the schools.
“There’s not one school in this county that’s not affected,” she said.
Last week, the Ocean City Board of Education approved a new policy to equip the school district with an opioid antidote to save overdose victims. Joseph S. Clark Jr., the school board president, said he wasn’t aware of any overdoses involving Ocean City students, but characterized the new antidote policy as a proactive approach toward the county’s drug problem.
Onesty and Ahern called the antidote policy a good first step, but insisted that more needs to be done in the schools and within the community to fight addiction. They would like to see more community outreach, more drug treatment programs and a drug education program that would begin at the elementary school level.
Overall, Cape May County has “really come together” to try to battle addiction, Ahern said. However, Ahern and Onesty want to create a communitywide coalition of schools, students, police departments, churches, hospitals and local government to address the drug crisis.
Onesty emphasized the importance of church involvement by noting that her own church, Fresh Start Church in Egg Harbor Township, has helped her family to cope with Tyler’s death. She also said that Fresh Start, where Tyler’s memorial service was held, is committed to community outreach to combat addiction.
In the meantime, Onesty said she has been asked to speak in some of the schools about drug addiction. She and Ahern are planning to appear before the Ocean City Board of Education at its April meeting to discuss the new antidote policy and other ways to prevent overdose deaths.
If you or a loved one are having challenges with addiction, the following resource may be able to help you:
- Parent to Parent 856-983-3328
- City of Angels 609-910-4942
- CURE 609-465-6690 – help with treatment access, family and recovery support classes weekly
- Interim Managing Contact Entity (IME) Hotline 844-276-2777 for state funding and Medicaid