In 1997, Virginia “Ginger” Katz founded The Courage to Speak Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is “to save lives by inspiring youth to be drug free” through fostering education and open communication about drug and alcohol abuse. After her promising 20-year-old son Ian Eaccarino died of an accidental drug overdose in 1996, Katz vowed to do everything in her power to prevent such a tragedy from devastating other families. She was stunned to discover the pervasiveness of illegal substances in her Connecticut community, even among kids barely into their teens. All children are “at risk.”
For the past five years, at middle-schools and high schools, colleges, churches and civic organizations, and more recently at prestigious national “prevention conclaves, Katz has given more than 300 presentations to thousands of young people and the adults who care about them. In an intensely personal 60-minute presentation about a family shattered by drugs, Ginger exhorts young people to develop “the courage to speak” when they or a friend are in trouble, and to have at least three adults in their lives with whom they are able to share their secrets. Her hard-hitting presentation is enhanced by a professional Power-Point display (funded by a Fleet Bank) providing up-to-the-minute information and statistics on substance abuse and prevention.
Katz’s message emphasizes that substance abuse endangers not only the individual, but also the family and the entire community; where there are illegal drugs, statistics show there are gangs and guns, criminality and violence, murders and suicides. Today leading educators, prevention specialists and government and law enforcement officials in communities nationwide are recognizing Katz’s work.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Ginger’s effectiveness as a mentor and a catalyst for change, are the thousands of communications she receives from young people via e-mail after her presentations, and through the Foundation’s bilingual website www.couragetospeak.org – funded by Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services). Ginger responds to each message personally and immediately, providing confidential referrals to young people and their families in crisis. A “Courage to Speak” workbook is being developed to guide teachers in providing crucial, ongoing follow-up in the classroom. Ginger has also launched The Courage to Speak Support Group, a lifeline for parents who have lost children to drugs.
This support group and a small percentage of Katz’s presentations have been funded by modest grants from government, private and corporate sources, but the vast majority of Ginger’s expenses (“Courage to Speak” video, travel, presentation and follow-up) are barely covered and remain out-of-pocket. Only rarely has she ever received her full honorarium – a fee designed to help the Foundation grow and meet its goals – and many of her presentations are donated. Each year Katz, who in 2000 was named “Connecticut Woman of the Year” by the Connecticut Post, is the driving force behind a star-studded basketball tournament that serves as the Foundation’s annual fundraiser. At age 54, Katz is a Senior Olympic athlete in basketball and running another way she (by example) successfully inspires young people to achieve their dreams.