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C.A.T.E. formed to battle opioid epidemic

APOLLO BEACH — On the afternoon of Oct. 13, 2016, Bobby Iafelice dropped by his mother's Apollo Beach house to pick up furniture for the apartment he had just moved into with his new girlfriend.

Both Bobby and his girlfriend were addicted to heroin.

Both had frighteningly overdosed.

"I'm gonna help her, Mom," said Bobby, who had been sober for four months before the girl, a high school friend, reached out to him for help finding drugs.

That was the last time Sharon Iafelice saw her 23-year-old son. He fatally overdosed that night while his girlfriend, said Iafelice, only watched, too afraid of the consequences to call an ambulance.

Across town, Tina Patch, 50, struggled with her own child's heroin addiction. Her 27-year-old daughter Ana Marie had dated Bobby Iafelice for a year before breaking up, even living with Sharon and her husband Bob.

"I fell in love with Ana Marie the day Bobby brought her home," said Iafelice, 60. "I really believe if Bobby had lived, they would have stayed together for life."

Patch, partially estranged from her daughter, no longer could deal with the stress of Ana Marie's addiction and numerous overdose episodes.

"Watching your daughter essentially kill herself over and over takes its toll," Patch said.

When Patch learned Bobby died from a drug overdose, she reached out to Iafelice, and the two women have been close friends ever since.

Now they've formed a nonprofit, Conquering Addiction Through Education, and hope to raise awareness of opioid addiction and the services the organization will offer at a Jan. 27 fundraiser.

•••

Bobby Iafelice had struggled with addiction since he was a teenager, when a doctor prescribed him oxycodone after a snowboarding accident.

Sharon Iafelice said he remained a "high-functioning addict." He remained active in sports and graduated high school on time before moving into a college apartment.

There, he met friends who taught him to shoot heroin.

It got so bad that Sharon left a job she loved in Ohio to move into her Apollo Beach vacation home full time with Bobby, where she and her husband could watch over him.

They even bought him a restaurant to work in; he loved to cook and was pursuing a culinary arts degree.

Before long, drugs started flowing again via Bobby's new friends in the restaurant business, and money started disappearing from the till, forcing them to sell the restaurant.

Then Bobby met Ana Marie, and things got better for a while.

After their breakup, Bobby came to his parents for help, and they put him in a local rehab facility for three weeks; insurance deemed anything more "medically unnecessary."

He stayed for another month, costing his parents $30,000.

A month later, Bobby was gone.

•••

Patch knew she had to do something to keep her daughter from the same fate, so she called friends in law enforcement, who promised to get Ana Marie arrested the next time she overdosed, which happened in April 2017.

Ana Marie walked out of South Bay Hospital and into police custody, who let her go on probation. She soon failed a drug test.

After spending 30 days in jail waiting for a bed to open up at the DACCO drug treatment facility in Tampa, she entered a six month program last October, and Patch sees her regularly.

Patch and Iafelice, frustrated at the lack of resources for those coming out of rehab, decided to do something about it.

"We wanted to provide the kinds of services that we tried to find for our children, but couldn't," Iafelice said.

•••

In Oct. 2017, one year after Bobby's death, they launched Conquering Addiction Through Education. It's comprised of seven volunteer board members who have all been touched by addiction.

C.A.T.E., will open its new Apollo Beach center at the end of this month. The goal of the first fundraiser on Jan. 27 is spreading awareness of the "opioid epidemic." Subsequent fundraisers will be held the fourth Saturday of every month.

Patch and Iafelice said that the crisis is kept under wraps because addicts don't want to admit they have a problem, and their families are embarrassed, so a stigma prevents people from talking about it.

"When you start talking about it, though, you realize that it affects so many," Iafelice said.

•••

C.A.T.E. board members will be certified to run free programs called Matrix, Naranon and SMART Recovery, all originally created by the national Betty Ford Foundation drug treatment center.

The C.A.T.E. center will also offer free classes in art, reading, sewing, dressing for job interviews, resume building, computer skills and more; anything former addicts might need to get back on track in a world where finding a job can be difficult.

The monthly fundraisers, held in different locations around the Brandon, Riverview and South Shore areas, will include a discussion panel and silent auction, as well as a vendor showcase and educational Bingo game.

Patch and Iafelice hope people from all over the community will come out to eat, shop and learn how they can help.

"It has to be a community effort, because this is a community issue," Patch said.

The women are hoping that social media and word of mouth will bring in addicts who want a safe, judgment-free place to get help, and members of the community with a skill to offer will volunteer to teach classes.

They're also planning a 5k walk and family fun day at E.G. Simmons Park for Oct. 13, 2018, two years after Bobby's death.

Iafelice hopes to keep other parents from going through the loss of a child.

"If services like this had existed before, Bobby might still be here."

Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay.com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin

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