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A Daughter Lost to Heroin: One Family's Story

The Smeltzer family lives in a tree-lined subdivision in Boalsburg, just outside of State College. Their living room has a huge picture window with a view of a little park and beyond that the Tussey Mountain ski slope.

Ken and Bonnie Kline Smeltzer have converted a low table in front of the window into something of a shrine to their daughter Lizzie, who died of a heroin overdose on January 25th. There are pictures of Lizzie as a little girl and with her brother and as a pretty young woman with long brown hair. There's some of her artwork and candles and little carved elephants from her recent volunteer trip to India.

Also on the table is a black ceramic box, made and given to them by a local potter.

“This is a beautiful piece of raku pottery," said Bonnie, "and we have some of Lizzie’s ashes in there.”

Bonnie puts down the box and picks up a colorful handmade greeting card. Lizzie painted it and sent it to her grandmother in California. Inside she writes about her classes and hints at the trouble she's having finding direction in life.

“Right now, I am uncertain of how my life will turn out," wrote Lizzie. "What career I will end up with, etc. But I know eventually it will all work out and God has a plan.”

Both Bonnie and Ken are ministers in the Church of the Brethren. Bonnie is the minister at State College’s University Baptist & Brethren Church. Ken has been working as a handyman since he was fired from his church last year for performing Centre County’s first gay marriage. Bonnie says instead of the stigma you might expect to come along with a death by overdose, church contacts and other friends have been very supportive of their family since Lizzie died. Two couples in particular were there right away when they found out.

It was their support that "freed" them to put Lizzie’s unintentional overdose into her obituary.

"I wanted people to know why she died so they can learn from this," said Ken, "that it’s a dangerous thing to do and that even kids like Lizzie can die from this. They think they’re smart, and can control it and be careful. But they can’t."

Lizzie was going to Penn State part-time when she died. Like many college kids, she had experimented with drugs. Then a few years ago she overdosed on heroin. She went to rehab and group counseling. After a relapse, she started taking Seboxone, an opiate blocker. She eventually weaned herself off the Seboxone because it was expensive and she didn’t like the side effects. Her parents didn’t know she had started using heroin again.

“We think she thought she could do it recreationally," said Ken. "But I don’t know that you can. Heroin, it gets into your mind. It’s such a big high you can’t forget it. So if life isn’t going very well, you just want some more, and you can’t forget about it.”

Lizzie was living at home and working part time when she died. She was thinking about majoring in human development and family studies because she liked kids. But her parents say she was never a very good student. And that was tough on her.

"It’s hard to be in this town if you aren’t a good student or you aren’t excellent at something," said Ken. “I’d say she was struggling with her future. With what she was going to do.  She would have graduated this year, if she had gone through in 4 years. She saw some of her peers and friends graduating and moving on, and she wasn’t exactly going anywhere.”

Ken and Bonnie have decided to tell their story to raise awareness and to warn other parents that this is not some inner-city problem. And they’re sharing Lizzie’s story even though they say she would hate for people to know.

"There is such a stigma," said Bonnie, "particularly with heroin, which I think conjures up pictures of dark alleys, terrible people, needles, all kinds of things. And that’s not what happened. She was watching a movie with a person who had bought the drugs in his living room in a person’s home and fell asleep and died.”

Ken and Bonnie have talked to the mother of the man who bought the drugs that killed their daughter. They say they don't want him to go to jail. They want him to get the help they wish their daughter had gotten.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.
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