South Scranton resident Samantha Henehan lived as two different personalities.
There was Sammi, the girl who loved horses, dogs, the Philadelphia Eagles, Dave Matthews Band, driving motorcycles and being Irish. Even without a formal education, she showed a talent for the banking industry she was building a career in, earning a $10,000 bonus one year for her special efforts at work.
And then there was the second version of Sammi. This one dozed off at the kitchen table in front of her parents as she swayed under the influence of heroin. She lied, took off without warning, and spent time in rehabs and jail as she fought for her life against addiction.
At times, she seemed close to reaching true sobriety, a goal she had attained at great lengths before, sometimes for months or even years.
But Samantha Henehan ultimately lost her battle on April 10 at the age of 23, when she was found lifeless from an overdose by her parents and police in a low-rise Moosic hotel room.
The world forever changed for Marty Sr. and Stacy Schmidt-Henehan when they lost their only daughter. But, they remain determined to use their painful experience to save other lives and influence change in Northeast Pennsylvania.
On Sunday, July 17, from 3 to 7 p.m., the Henehans will co-host an Addiction Awareness Rally on Lackawanna County Courthouse Square in Scranton, with special assistance from co-organizers Judge Michael J. Barrasse, Lackawanna County District Attorney Shane Scanlon and Lackawanna County Commissioners Jerry Notarianni, Patrick M. O’Malley and Laureen A. Cummings.
The family-friendly event will have all the trappings of a typical festival: facepainting, bounce houses and activities for children, food vendors and refreshments, raffles, a dunk tank and live entertainment by a DJ and blues artist Clarence Spady.
But this rally features something different, too.
Several regional addiction treatment centers, as well as representatives from support groups, local law enforcement and the courts system, former drug and alcohol abusers and family members will be on hand to talk to guests about sobriety, recovery and everything that comes before it.
The rally falls one day after what would have been Sammi’s 24th birthday. And while her family’s grief is still unfolding, her parents said there was no time to waste in trying to help others.
It’s a mission that started when they plainly stated her cause of death in her obituary. And one that continues as the Henehans work to remove the stigma from speaking out about the realities of addiction.
Their daughter easily made friends wherever she went, and often comforted others struggling with substance abuse, they recalled. She especially looked out for other young women she encountered who needed encouragement and a friendly ear.
The rally will serves as the launching point for the Forever Sammi Foundation, which seeks to assist people in recovery with transitions. The fund will bridge the gap between treatment centers and sober houses, among other crucial services.
“I think that she would just want to continue to help people,” Mr. Henehan said on a recent afternoon at his in-law’s West Scranton home.
“Try to help families to avoid this, kids come out of that hole they’re in,” he continued. “If we can help one person, one family, it’s a homerun.”
As a toddler, Sammi Henehan was a beauty pageant queen, earning titles from Scranton to Pittsburgh, her mother said. She babied her little brother, Marty Jr., and adored her grandfather, Joseph Schmidt Sr., who helped raise her.
She was a petite free spirit with hazel eyes, whose bubbly personality and ease with public speaking made her a natural as a personal banker, her parents explained.
“She was an extrovert, without a doubt,” Mr. Henehan said. “She was the type of person who would walk into a room and there could be 100 people there, and she would say hello to every single person.
“But as she said hello to you, you would feel as though there was nobody else in the room,” he added.
The first glimpse of her inner demons came when she was about 14 years old as she started drinking. She began acting out, and by 15, her mother discovered Vicodin pills in her bedroom.
“She didn’t really try to hide it. I think that was her personality,” her father said. “She was really honest, in a dishonest way, if that makes any sense. She walked to the edge all the time.”
Sammi celebrated her 16th birthday at a rehab facility. She remained sober for a couple months, but was back in treatment by 17. This time, it seemed to stick, and she marked three years sober when she was 20.
At 21, upon entry into the bar scene, Sammi relapsed, and seemed crushed by the loss of her hard-won sobriety.
“She felt like she was missing out,” Mrs. Henehan said. “It just escalated from there.”
Sammi met a boyfriend in recovery who was a heroin addict. When the couple got an apartment together, she began to use, too. The change was dramatic and her friends and family knew she was in trouble right away.
“Her attitude was horrible. It was hard to watch and see,” Mrs. Henehan described. “She had (needle) marks. Her face would break out because she would scratch.”
“Her infectious, positive personality would overpower a room when she was sober. However, when she used, it was like talking about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Mr. Henehan said.
“I would go in to a room and she would just be laying there, crying, (saying) ‘Nobody likes me.’ She believed that lie,” he said. “That’s how addiction would grab hold of her.”
Mr. and Mrs. Henehan themselves battle with addictions to alcohol, opioid pain pills and substances, but are both in recovery now. The topic was never off-limits in their house, as they tried to remain open and honest with their daughter while she worked on being sober.
They understood the dark side of addiction, and wanted Sammi to know she wasn’t alone.
“It lies to us. It puts us in the darkest place that separates us from the positive spirit,” Mr. Henehan said. “It was the most powerful force on the planet she was battling, and she felt she had to battle it herself. We forget there’s a solution. We forget that there’s a way to fix this.”
“I’m so heartbroken to know that I didn’t know she was in that much pain,” her mother said. “I should be planning her wedding, not this (rally).”
Mr. Henehan likened addiction to driving an 18-wheeler down a winding hill and losing the power steering, brakes and all control over the vehicle.
“I can see the wall coming, but I can’t stop,” he said. “Sometimes willpower is not enough to stop it.”
In the final few months of Sammi’s life, she struggled with staying clean. She spent time in a mental hospital, landed in jail for a week and left two treatment centers against medical advice.
Via a network of tips from acquaintances, the Hehehans received word that Sammi was in danger when she took her fatal dose in April. Both parents admitted they had had a bad feeling that day.
For Mr. Henehan, the strength to continue likewise came from a sign he felt came from Sammi. As he begged for a sign that God was real and asked his daughter for a clue about what he should do, the message came through clear.
“I needed to know she’s perfectly healthy, no fears, no insecurities, no feelings of loneliness,” he said. “The things we feel when we’re in the middle of our active addiction.”
During his own struggle with sobriety, Sammi had sent him a card that told him to help somebody else in order to make his time count.
“I got some relief,” Mr. Henehan said. “I got that same message as I was sitting there.
“I think the message that she told me was the best thing, and the only thing, that I could continue to do for her, and in her name, and to hold her legacy,” he said. “Help somebody while I’m here.”
Mr. Henehan estimated he logs about 100 hours per week promoting the rally on top of the 40 hours he works construction. It’s a labor of love to change the way the public thinks of heroin, and to spread the hopeful message that recovery is possible.
“The problem starts in our living room,” Mr. Henehan said. “But unfortunately, this problem mushroomed outside of my living room. It’s in my neighborhood, it’s in my community.
“We need to stop whispering about it and address it for what it is,” he continued. “If you ask some people what’s our No. 1 resource, they might say gold. I believe it’s something else that still has four letters, but it’s called life. It’s stealing the life out of our community.”
In hindsight, Sammi’s parents admit they have many regrets. Mrs. Henehan wishes she had been a stricter disciplinarian. Mr. Henehan wishes he didn’t overcompensate for his own failures by giving Sammi too much.
“Don’t love your children to death,” he advised. “Love them to live … Remove the resources of their funding … because they may be walking out and die with the money you put in their pocket.”
In the end, Sammi’s addiction brought her to a hotel room she never walked back out of. But the memories of her goodness remain not only with her family and friends, but also with the strangers she helped along the way.
One such anonymous person reached out to Mrs. Henehan right after Sammi died to say this:
“I just wanted to thank you for sharing her with the world. Her light and message was pure love. She was the first person who helped me pave my pathway to sobriety. My heart is broken that she couldn’t find hers. “But now, because of her, I’m helping others. You don’t know me, but I love you for that … Sammi is for sure going to be an enormous guardian angel.”
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org, @pwildingTT on Twitter
If you go
What: Addiction Awareness Rally
When: Sunday, July 17, 3 to 7 p.m.
Where: Lackawanna County Courthouse Square
Details: Admission is free to the family-friendly event. Food vendors, children’s activities, live entertainment and guest speakers will be on hand. Representatives from support groups and treatment centers, survivors and more will be available. For more information, visit www.heroinhitshome.com.