A Canandaigua family fights back against heroin addiction.

CANANDAIGUA — For the first time in 17 years, Jeff and Suzanne Marinelli are finally able to fully exhale.

Now, a little over a year after their youngest son’s heroin-related death, they’re taking empowered, proactive steps to wage war on the disease that took one son’s life and has the other behind bars.

For 17 years in secret and on the public stage, their two sons, Michael and Noah, battled heroin addiction. Sometimes they prevailed. In other very dark times, they didn’t.

Noah’s life ended suddenly and publicly at the age of 33 on June 29, 2016, in a violent crash that followed a high-speed, two-county police chase that was triggered by a larceny at a Farmington pharmacy. Noah’s passenger — 32-year-old Danielle Golding of Utica — died in the hospital a few days later of injuries suffered in the crash.

Suzanne Marinelli said the two were stealing merchandise they’d exchange for money at Rochester bodegas or pawn shops so they could go buy the heroin they desperately needed. Noah had previously served jail sentences for nonviolent felony crimes, she said.

Noah’s older brother, Michael, is an inmate in Gouverneur Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in St. Lawrence County. He became addicted when his doctor prescribed Vicodin for pain following a car crash, his parents said.

“I’ve never forgotten what it was like when we first found out that Michael was using heroin 17 years ago,” said Suzanne. “When we were turning for help, it wasn’t easily found.”

None of their friends had kids who were using — no one had any experience, she said.

“We were embarrassed, we were ashamed,” said Suzanne. “How could this be happening to us? Did we do something wrong?”

Now, more than 13 months after Noah’s death, she’s started a project — a support group “for anyone who has an addict in their lives.”

“This group will be for sharing and offering positivity on how to live our lives with purpose and bliss,” Suzanne wrote in a post on Facebook.

Her invitation touched a nerve and opened a floodgate of response. Family members from across the county, wading through their own heart-wrenching muck and mire of loving an addict, were reaching for a lifeline.

Finally, in the Marinellis’ Chapin Street living room, on alternate Wednesday nights, they’re finding — and offering — one.

“There is no prerequisite,” said Suzanne. “Anybody can come who has a person they care about who’s an addict.”

And it doesn’t have to be heroin — people can be addicted to food, sex, gambling, drinking, many things, she said.

“Unfortunately in our society right now, the main emphasis is on the opioids, and they’re prevalent,” she said. “They’re everywhere.”

Make no mistake — this isn’t a 12-step program, though Marinelli is happy to connect people with a local program if that’s what they’re seeking.

The group is for people who want to come and need to share, who are “just looking for someone who truly knows” what the battle is like, said Suzanne.

“Friends are wonderful — they love you and support you,” she said. “But if your friends don’t have a loved one who’s an addict, they don’t really know. It doesn’t mean they can’t care or be compassionate, but the real understanding isn’t there.”

At the first meeting on Aug. 9, people with varied experiences but common emotions gathered in her living room.

“There’s a lot of, a lot of sadness,” said Suzanne, carefully maintaining confidentiality. “A lot of people are struggling — some are raising grandchildren, some have adult children living at home and are still using.”

As long as people can afford to feed their addiction, Marinelli said, the battle is relatively contained. But once they can’t afford it and start stealing from their family or pawning things, it becomes a whole different issue. Families are then dealing with the penal system.

“We wound up filing for bankruptcy,” said Suzanne, who shared that part of her family’s journey with the group on Aug. 9. “People almost lose their homes, because you’ll do anything to try and help.”

One person was able to “recommend a psychiatrist very, very highly” to other group members, Suzanne said.

Another confessed they’d hit a brick wall with their physician, who told them he or she had no experience with heroin addiction and couldn’t help them. Still another brought a book on grief that was highly recommended.

The Marinelli family is “17 years in,” she said. But some people are really new to the battle.

“For me, those are the people I really want to help along because they’re so scared and they don’t know what’s coming,” said Suzanne.

Different group members bring different things to the table, she said.

“Jeff and I have been to almost every prison in New York state,” she said. “So if you need to go (to visit a loved one), I can tell you everything you need to know and what to do.”

Ideally, the Marinellis would love to see people all over the heroin-scourged region launch their own support groups.

“If there are people over toward Farmington who’d like to start something over there, please do so,” said Suzanne. “If you want to start something in Phelps, or Geneva, please do so. Let’s get things going. People don’t need to wait.”

If a support group isn’t nearby, then start one, she said.

As for the newly formed Chapin Street group, Suzanne hopes it will develop its own identity and continue for as long as it's needed.

“It will be up to participants to choose an official name,” she said. “And I would love for people to take turns leading the discussion at future meetings, sharing books or passages that have been helpful, other resources, events.”

The group meets twice a month, but people can come or not come, depending on their need, she said.

“Nobody’s taking attendance, and there’s no limit — we’ll squeeze you in,” said Suzanne. “I’d just like to spread the love.”

The Marinellis would like the group to become permanent, whether it meets at their house or somewhere else, or becomes 20 different groups.

“I just want to keep it going,” said Suzanne. “Unfortunately, people are finding out about a family member or losing a family member every day. And if you do not have the wherewithal to come at this — the most serious battle you’ll ever fight in your life — it can beat you down, and beat you down fast. You’re truly fighting for your loved one’s life.”

One piece that’s missing in the region is a comprehensive clearinghouse for information and resources, Suzanne said.

People should be able to find — in every physician’s office in Ontario County — a list of rehabs, services, ongoing meetings both for addicts and for people who care about addicts, private meetings like Marinelli’s, lectures and presentations, church meetings, and resources from coalitions and groups like Partnership for Ontario County, she said.

Suzanne even said she’d like to be on a committee or a team of people who pull this together.

“It’s way too big for one person to try and get this together and maintain it,” she said. “It’s a living, breathing entity.”

Another very practical project is launching Sunday, thanks to the heart and craftsmanship of Jeff Marinelli.

It’s Noah’s Blessing Box, a trunk-sized, weather-protected wooden receptacle that’s perched on a post in front of their Chapin Street home.

“In Rochester, you'll see Blessing Boxes in many neighborhoods,” Jeff told friends on Facebook. “People can take what they need and leave stuff too. Food, toiletries, things like that.”

A friend of the family who lives near the Rochester Blessing Box rallied her neighborhood to stock and maintain one of the boxes in Noah's memory. Now Jeff and Suzanne will make sure it’s filled with essential items one might need if they’re living on the street.

Noah’s Blessing Box has a glass door, easy access, and holds dry and canned foods, personal products, hygiene products, and an explanation. A decal on the front pays tribute to Noah’s love for sharks. An oak leaf symbolizes life. And the box is painted deep blue — his favorite color.

“I specifically built this using a circular saw, hammer, tools that the average homeowner would have around their house,” said Jeff. “This should should certainly be within the average handyman’s capability.”

One of the ladies up at Canandaigua Churches in Action said they have some folks with mental health issues who’d like to help build the boxes, Jeff said. They’d need donations of wood and tools to be able to serve the community this way.

“If you’re in need, feel free to stop by and get what you need,” said Suzanne. “There’s sanitary products, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, food.”

People have been dropping off anonymous gifts on their front porch all week, and will hopefully continue to do so.

One came with a message: “This box of supplies is donated in memory of our good friend Ashley, whose life was ended way too soon. She had a heart of gold and would give anything she had to help others. Since she is not here to give, we are giving in her memory.”

The box will be installed Sunday, and ready for visitors in need.

“We fully expect someone will probably empty it, but hopefully nobody’s going to wreck it,” said Suzanne. “They cost about $70 to put together, by the time you buy the wood and post and cement and paint.”

Jeff also is working on a simple plan for the boxes, so people who inquire can build one of their own.

“One woman wants one down at the city pier,” Suzanne said.

Step by step, the Marinelli family is finding their way back, but it’s still a rocky road. It’s been a little over a year since Noah died, but there are times when it feels like June 29, 2016, all over again, Suzanne said.

“To be there is exhausting,” she said. “It takes everything out of you. For Jeff and myself and (daughter) Rachael and Michael, our loss was so public and so ugly. But other people’s losses are just as as tragic. If you find your child in a bathroom or get a phone call because they’re in another state, it’s just ugly.”

She wants to encourage people that, if there’s no hope that a loved one can overcome addiction, “there will never be change, ever,” said Suzanne.

“You cannot give up hope, ever,” she said. “You have to always believe (freedom and healing) can happen.

“But we’re not going to be able to do anything if we’re not taking care of one another,” she said. “We have to help one another, and it all needs to be done with respect and kindness and compassion.”

The hard thing about compassion is a person doesn’t get to pick and choose who they’ll share it with, Suzanne said.

“It doesn’t mean our kids aren’t going to be in prison,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to be able to save everybody, because you can’t. But you’re supposed to do the best you can.”

Suzanne hopes people come away from the yet-to-be-named support group, her “Noah Project,” feeling comforted that they now know “people who know and really understand.”

“I’m not a licensed social worker, I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a sociologist, I’m not any of those things,” said Suzanne. “However I’m an intelligent woman, and I’ve been through a lot. I’ve learned a lot, and I just know my life needs to be full of purpose. I deserve joy.

“I’m working on that, and I’d like that for everybody,” she said. “Because you don’t deserve to be sad. Not all the time. Not like that.”