Carol Cruz nearly had her son taken away from her 20 years ago because she was a drug addict, abusing alcohol and using heroin and crack cocaine.

Kim Burrows’s daughter, a part-time college student, died of a heroin overdose.

Heather Henning lost her brother to depression, and Kevin Morse served time in jail before managing to stop using drugs.

These people are all part of a grassroots organization called  R.E.A.C.H. OUT that aims to raise awareness about drug addiction and mental illness, remove some of the stigma and fight so that no one else dies while waging these battles.

The name  R.E.A.C.H. stands for  Recovery, Education, Accountability, Community and Hope.

The group, fairly new and working to become a registered non-profit, held a 5K walk Saturday at Walnut Beach to raise funds for its efforts.

Markers along the way featured the names and photographs of five people who died because of struggles with substance abuse or emotional issues: Todd Poland died this year at age 23; Raymond Zaorski died in 2010 at age 26; Jessica Burrows died at age 25 in 2011; Ryan Simpson died in 2010 at age 19, and Brenton Smith died in 2012 at age 38.

The final marker set up along the route had no name on it. The blank marker was symbolic: “We don’t want anyone else to die from mental illness or substance abuse,” Cruz explained.

R.E.A.C.H. OUT

Cruz started the organization more than a year ago after attending a Parent Leadership Training Institute course in Milford, which was designed to mold community leaders. The course members had to do a project, and Cruz chose to start  R.E.A.C.H. OUT.

It is the type of group she’d dreamed of starting for many years because she strongly believes that people like herself who have faced these challenges can help others going through them.

Her struggle with addiction peaked in 1994. In 1994 Cruz was pregnant, and a week after her son was born her mother and sister took the tough love approach and told her they wouldn’t help with the baby until she got clean.

Addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, Cruz was in the bathroom of her apartment getting high when she heard her son screaming. The drugs made her paranoid and she thought the worst, that someone had broken in.

But when she got to her baby, he was fine, looking at her with big eyes that to her said, “Mommy please stop. I need you.”

So she stopped. And she has “been clean” ever since.

Heroin

Some people at the Saturday event said there is a heroin problem in Milford.

“There is a problem and it’s affecting every walk of life,” said Kim Burrows.

Her daughter Jessica looked more like the typical college student than someone with a heroin addiction. Kim said it isn’t clear when the problem started but it escalated after a car accident during college, when Jessica was prescribed pain medications.

“She made a bad choice one day and she couldn’t stop,” Kim said. “There’s a picture we paint of an addict, and that’s wrong. It could be your next door neighbor. It’s hurting everyone, and I don’t want it happening again.”

When there is a problem with drugs, depression or mental illness, it affects the whole family, not just the individual: Kim said the stress and struggle to save a loved one is overwhelming and can tear a family apart.

Heroin didn’t define Jessica, even though it took her life. “That’s not who she was,” Kim said. “She was so much more, but she had a problem.

Kelly Graham, who teaches at The Academy, has worked with local youth and she knows that heroin is a problem in the community.

“It seems to come in waves,” she said. “It gets such a hold on them.”

Pam Staneski has worked a lot with local youth, too, and she agrees there’s a problem.

“We’re one of 100 best communities for children because we don’t put our heads in the sand,” Staneski said. “Heroin is on the rise because it’s cheap.”

Reaching out

Heather Henning said her brother, Brenton Smith, fell victim to depression, and she thinks many people suffer silently from depression

“I think a lot of people turn their heads to it,” she said. “If we can reach out to kids we can prevent a lot of heartache.”

That’s one of the main objectives of this new group. Cruz wants to see mentors available to local youth — mentors like herself, and R.E.A.C.H. OUT President Kevin Morse, people who have experience with addictions and understand what others are going through.

Morse has spoken about his addictions to students at The Academy.

When he spoke at the school in 2011, he told students he’d once been at the end of his rope. He was smoking crack cocaine and was living in a sealed-up pop-up trailer.

He had a one-year-old son whom he said he used as a “prop” when he went to the store to steal things for his drug habit. Then he started robbing people, including his parents, and was arrested more than a dozen times.

The Milford man did some time in jail.

But he cleaned himself up.

In 2011 Morse was playing  minor league football with the Connecticut Bearcats and more recently was playing with the Connecticut Chiefs Minor Professional football team.

He is a state certified recovery coach working in the substance abuse field and he has three “beautiful” children. He's happy.

His message to The Academy students was that they don't have to sell themselves short.

Morse would like to spend more time mentoring students in school, and that’s one of the reasons he got involved with  R.E.A.C.H. OUT.

“I want to see more peer support in the community,” Morse said. “Kids get out of rehab, and they’re in class, and they have these thoughts in their head, and they want to use, and they’re labeled.”

He thinks people like him can reach people going through those struggles because they’ve been through it.