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Jerry Davich: Christopher Kennedy Lawford: ‘Trust God, serve others, and clean house’

Frontline Foundations Inc. keynote speaker Christopher Kennedy Lawford. | Phoprovided~DonnLind

Frontline Foundations Inc. keynote speaker Christopher Kennedy Lawford. | Photo provided~Donna Lind

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Updated: April 21, 2013 6:34AM



When I asked for a show of hands, I was skeptical of receiving an honest response from the upscale event’s 300 well-dressed guests.

My question was simple yet it touched on a still-stigmatized issue in our society: Drug addiction.

“How many of you know someone who is — or was — an addict?” I asked guests at Saturday night’s “In One Accord” benefit dinner at Valparaiso University’s Harre Union.

Surprisingly, the majority of guests raised their hand without hesitation, shame or embarrassment. I expected fewer hands, meaning fewer public admissions that such a problem exists in Porter County and Northwest Indiana.

Let’s be clear — there is a serious problem with drug addiction in this region. And I’m not talking about the convenient stereotype of drug addiction that is solely rooted in our urbanized cities.

In Porter County, for example, there have been at least nine heroin-related deaths this year, already matching last year’s total number. We’re not even into April yet.

A handful of these recent deaths had personal connections to Frontline Foundations Inc., the Chesterton- and Valparaiso-based agency that hosted the fundraising dinner. The agency treats people ages 18 to 28, the highest-risk group for addiction and substance abuse, and often on a shoestring budget. So much so that its executive director, Amber Hensell, doesn’t draw a salary.

This is only part of the reason behind the agency’s most significant fundraiser, which turned into a “call to action” as the evening evolved.

Pastor Lionel Young of Calvary Church in Valparaiso revealed to the audience that if the event raised $25,000, an anonymous donor would match it with an additional $25,000. The guests ended up donating more than $28,000, I learned the next day.

It wasn’t because of the event’s high-profile keynote speaker, Christopher Kennedy Lawford, who was charming, gracious and candid. Lawford, the black-sheep nephew of John F. Kennedy, is a former addict who’s been in recovery for 27 years. The father of three is now a best-selling author and addiction recovery expert working with the White House Office on Drug Control Policy.

Lawford spoke for roughly a half hour on his own drug and alcohol addiction, his recovery, and his celebrity life in the national spotlight.

As a kid — born into fame, wealth, and privilege in the shadows of the Kennedy family — Lawford was taught how to dance the twist by none other than Marilyn Monroe. How did he feel about this honor, making him the envy of every guy who was pool side that day?

“Hey, I was only 6,” he said with a celebrity smirk.

His father, Peter Lawford, was a card-carrying member of the famed “Rat Pack” back in Hollywood’s heyday. But the award-winning actor also shared a vial of cocaine with his addict son on Christopher’s 21st birthday.

“He loved me but he didn’t know any better,” Lawford told guests.

‘A moment of grace’

Christopher’s first addiction was to sugar, but no one noticed because all kids appear addicted to sugar.

“I’m not saying that Snickers bars are a gateway drug, but ...,” he said to laughs from the audience.

Halloween, he joked, is the perfect reflection of addiction because you get to go door to door pretending to be somebody you’re not while repeatedly asking for more and more.

“Like most addicts, I only liked advice if I agreed with it,” he said regarding his failed recovery efforts.

Until he eventually experienced a life-saving “moment of grace.”

His three tenets of life since being in recovery have been “trust God, serve others, and clean house.” Since being clean, his audiences have included everyone from town drunks to policy makers and, sometimes, “drunken policy makers,” he quipped.

Lawford was entertaining and informative, but the event’s most touching guest speakers were Linda Bradley of Valparaiso and Eric Mercier of Dyer.

In 2011, Bradley’s husband was struck and killed while jogging, by a young motorist under the influence of substance abuse. Garry Bradley, a retired banker and the brother-in-law of Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas, was 62 years old.

Much of Linda’s happiness and laughter was forever left on that road where Garry died. She was never able to say goodbye. Yet somehow she was able to do something that many of us simply couldn’t do. She forgave her husband’s killer. And she now advocates for Frontline and its front-line battles against drug addiction.

She left the stage in tears to a standing ovation by many tearful guests.

Mercier, a former addict, said Frontline’s staff gave him hope when he had none. He also is now a volunteer for the agency, which is hosting an open house on April 19.

This is what it takes when it comes to this issue — personal calls to action, not obligatory lip service by well-meaning well-wishers.

“Yes, the event was a fundraiser but it was more of a call to action to compel people to do ... something,” said Hensell, who deemed it a success on multiple levels.

“I’m absolutely beyond thrilled,” she told me afterward while driving Lawford back to the airport.

I’ll leave you with something I forgot to mention during my emceeing duties.

Do you know the difference between a thief and an addict? A thief will steal money from you and lie about it. An addict will steal money from you and help you try to find it.

True story. It happened to me personally. Yes, I also raised my hand to my own question.

Listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show each Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.thelakeshorefm.com.



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