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The Jackson Citizen Patriot has selected Jackson Commercial Contractors Association member Mike Hirst as the 2016 Citizen of the Year. The membership of JCCA congratulates Mike on this well-deserved honor. In a story published in print and online on January 3, 2015, the Citizen Patriot chose Mike for his work in battling heroin addiction in Jackson County and for creating “Andy’s Angels” in honor of his son Andy who died of a heroin overdose in 2010.
We are sharing reporter Ryan Shek’s story as published (courtesy Jackson Citizen Patriot):
ACKSON, MI – Back in the woods, unburdened by the realities of his heroin addiction, Andrew Hirst questioned his life’s purpose while working alongside his father.
Andrew decided he didn’t have one — and three days later — he died.
“That bothered me for a long time,” said Mike Hirst, more than five years after his 24-year-old son’s overdose death. “I thought if I could have told him what his purpose was, then maybe he’d still be here.
“Maybe he’d be striving to fulfill that purpose,” Hirst wondered.
Sharing his son’s story at an Andy’s Angel’s benefit dinner two years later, Hirst said he realized his son’s purpose while watching 200 people — from business owners to single parents to elected officials — raise $20,000 for people addicted to heroin and opiate drugs.
“It dawned on me, it just came out of the blue,” Hirst reflected, overcome with emotion. “When I saw young kids being inspired to get better, or to seek help … I figured out what (Andrew’s) purpose was,” he said.
By sharing the tragic reality of his son’s death, Mike Hirst has counseled addicts, reached out in support of families and steered Jackson County youth away from heroin and opiate drugs for the past five years.
In addition, he’s spearheaded educational campaigns, informed people of the link between prescription opioid use and heroin addiction and teamed with local police agencies to investigate heroin dealers.
For his work, which has evolved with Jackson County’s reported increase of drug overdoses, the Citizen Patriot named Hirst, 57, of Waterloo Township, the 2016 Citizen of the Year.
“The work he’s done, it’s unlike anything,” reflected Connie Fridd, who works with Hirst at his foundation’s family support group, Families for Hope. “I think (his work) absolutely saves lives. It saves families.
“It’s hope,” she added.
‘In the trenches’
Fridd met Mike Hirst shortly after her own son, Nicholas, 28, died of a heroin overdose in 2014.
A Western High graduate and skilled IT technician, Nicholas Fridd, like Andrew Hirst, ultimately slipped into the throes of heroin addiction after abusing prescription drugs.
His addiction sent him to emergency rooms and rehab centers, strained his personal relationships and ultimately eroded his self-esteem, Fridd said.
“He lost everything in his life … To see your child like that is the absolute worst feeling,” Fridd reflected. “It’s (as if they) fall into a pool of water and they’re drowning — and you can jump in to save them — but they’re going to jump (back in).”
In the months leading up to his death last year, Fridd was charged with writing a bad check and admitted to a 90-day rehab center. Afterwards, he maintained sobriety, found an IT job in Ann Arbor and started dating again.
Despite his progress, Fridd relapsed and died of the heroin overdose that May. Struggling to comprehend her son’s death and aware of his work in the community, Connie Fridd contacted Mike Hirst.
“I thought my son was on the road to recovery,” Fridd reflected. “There’s so much we didn’t know.”
Listening to Fridd’s story through the context of his own experience, Hirst helped her better understand her son’s heroin addiction, she explained.
“Mike has tried different methods, he’s been through it — in the trenches — and just has a way,” Fridd said, adding his honesty breaks down public stigma associated with addiction and inspired her to become an advocate herself.
“Our kids died of a heroin overdose, it’s an awful thing,” she said. “(But Mike) is going to be upfront and honest, he’ll cry and tell it like it is.
“He’s willing to put himself out there, time and time again.”
‘What I was fighting’
Like Fridd, Hirst said he wished he knew more when his son first admitted to his drug addiction.
“I didn’t have any idea what I was fighting,” Hirst recalled, noting nine out of 10 addicts fail to kick the habit. “You have a better chance of surviving most cancers than getting off (heroin) … Nobody has the magic pill.”
To reverse the odds stacked against users, Hirst said it’s important people understand the drug’s physiological effects as well as recognize how prescription opioid abuse can lead to heroin addiction.
In addition, it’s important to keep young people from trying the drug and for police and prosecutors to more aggressively pursue dealers.
Spreading awareness for the past five years, Hirst has led the way for drug-prevention advocates when reported drug overdoses have nearly tripled across Jackson County.
The year Hirst’s son died in 2010, 45 drug overdoses were reported to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. In 2015, 131 overdoses were reported.
Of those 131 people, at least 20 died as the result of heroin or opioids, Jackson County Sheriff Steven Rand said.
“(Hirst) was sounding the alarm bell back then,” Rand said of Hirst’s efforts to change public perception and bring the potentially life saving drug, Naloxone, to the department.
“He was saying this is bad, this (problem) is coming and that it’s something we need to have on our radar. And he was right,” The sheriff added.
Recognizing the growing trends in property crimes related to drug addiction among other statistics, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office held its first drug summit to specifically address heroin and opioid addiction in 2014.
The event approached the drug abuse from a community perspective and has featured Hirst as a keynote speaker for two years running.
“He’s done so much for our community since his son, Andy, passed,” county Prosecutor Jerry Jaryznka said. “He makes himself available, (whether it’s for) counseling a person who’s personally addicted, or the loved ones of those who are.”
“When you hear him make that presentation, it just really tugs at your heart,” the prosecutor added. “I think he makes an impact.”
‘He didn’t die in vain’
When Hirst speaks at schools and community forums, he brings his son’s ashes.
He holds them out as proof of where opiate addiction leads.
“It’s always emotional,” Hirst said, but “death is real.”
Hirst said the speeches can be painful, but it’s important to channel his emotions into constructive outlets, and ultimately, better people’s lives.
For parents, loved ones and addicts themselves.
“All of us have a loved one who has an issue,” said Julie Risner, who also works with Hirst at Families for Hope. “(Hirst) will go to jails and (rehab) facilities to meet with these kids.”
“He’ll reach out to your loved one and give them a purpose in life,” she added, noting many have opened up about their addiction to champion change in the community. “He’s just so selfless.”
For Hirst, the people he’s helped are simply his son’s legacy.
“Failure is part of life, but it’s what you learn after that carries you through,” Hirst said. “My son didn’t die for nothing — he didn’t die in vain.”
“His death is saving others,” he said.
Ryan Shek is a reporter for the Jackson Citizen Patriot and MLive.com. Contact him at email@example.com.
Photo courtesy Jackson Citizen Patriot.