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10 years after his death, Joshua Olt's legacy lives on through Peoria harm reduction

Joshua Olt died by heroin overdose in April 2012. His parents, Dr. Tamara Olt and Blake Olt, founded the JOLT Foundation harm reduction nonprofit in their son's honor.
Hannah Alani
Joshua Olt died by heroin overdose in April 2012. His parents, Dr. Tamara Olt and Blake Olt, founded the JOLT Foundation harm reduction nonprofit in their son's honor.

On April 29, 2012, Dr. Tamara Olt received the phone call that is every parent's worst nightmare.

Her 16-year-old son Joshua had overdosed on heroin. He was in the hospital. He was dying.

An OBGYN in Peoria, Dr. Olt created a foundation in her son's honor. A decade later, the JOLT Foundation — Peoria's first harm reduction agency — has multiple locations offering services from HIV testing to suboxone prescriptions to syringe exchanges and more.

But 10 years ago, the nonprofit started with Dr. Olt mother making narcan kits on her dining room table.

In a conversation with WCBU correspondent Hannah Alani, Dr. Olt and her husband Blake Olt reflect on how their son's legacy lives on through the JOLT Foundation.

The following a transcript of an interview that aired during All Things Peoria.

Dr. Tamara Olt: He's a whirlwind. You know, he had lots of friends. You look back and try and figure out like, I still don't think about it so much anymore, but what did I do wrong? Why did my son use drugs? Why would he do heroin, such a dangerous drug? Why? Why on earth would he do that?

And I don't have any answers to that. I don't understand it. But my husband says, he didn't mean to die. He was just experimenting. He only used drugs for about six months before he died. So he was a fairly novice user. And it was just unlucky. He overdosed, and he'd eaten, and he aspirated, and he died. And that was it.

And that's what I really struggled with, because I'm a fixer. Any problem, let's figure out what we got to deal with. Death is the one thing you cannot undo. It doesn't matter. There are no redos. No do overs.

And so that's how JOLT started. I think I would have lost my mind if I didn't find something to do to make a difference. And you see a lot of organizations that come from grieving mothers, because we have to find a way we have all this love that we can't give because our child is gone. So we take that love and create organizations create things that will help other people and other mothers and families. And that's what keeps us going. And it's kind of a just a beautiful legacy to the to the person we lost. I miss him every single day. But I like I said, there's no undoing what happened and have to find a way to move forward and try and help others. That's how I've survived this. I really didn't know if I would when he died. It was so horrific. But I found a way to go on. Ten years later, I'm still standing.

Hannah Alani: I think about today, you know, 2022, (and) the amount of education that goes on in high schools around drug use, and the amount of harm reduction, the fact that harm reduction exists. And then I think back to 2012, when Josh was 16 and just a sophomore in high school. What was drug education like back then? Or did it exist at all? I was in high school, and I'm trying to remember. I remember the D.A.R.E. campaigns.

Dr. Tamara Olt: Oh, yeah. Josh was a D.A.R.E. kid. That worked really well, "just say no." I know lots of moms with the children who were D.A.R.E. kids. It doesn't work. I believe in science-based, honest education to kids, because they know there's the internet. You tell them a bunch of nonsense about drugs, then they're going to know that you're lying, and they're not going to listen to you anymore. So I just think honest, science-based discussions with teens is so important and not shutting them out.

If they need help, making sure they know...if there was one thing I could go back and say to Josh, it would be that no matter what you do, I have your back. No one loves you more than I do. And whatever problem you have, you can tell me, because he didn't feel comfortable telling us. He knew I was very anti-drug. I was just so scared that they were gonna get involved with drugs and become addicted and it would ruin their life. So I regret that I didn't kind of also say, 'but if you're having trouble, please talk to me.' Let me know what's going on, because he was hiding it. And we never got a chance to get him help. Because we didn't know.

Sixteen is so young, but did he talked about what he wanted to be when he grew up?

Blake Olt: I was hoping for a racecar driver. That's what I wanted him to do. It didn't matter whatever he was going to do is going to be something special and cool. He wouldn't have been anything boring, or a salesman like I was, or anything like that. I think personally he knew his life on Earth was short. The way he lived his life, every minute of it. It was like he went at 11.

Dr. Tamara Olt: We pretty much created a foundation right away and called it Joshua, Let's Talk Foundation. And it was shortened to JOLT Foundation. And the original T-shirts we had said JOLT Foundation for Harm Reduction and Drug Awareness. And I didn't know what I was going to do at that time. I thought, well, maybe I can go into schools and share my story, trying to help other teenagers from being lost to overdose.

And then I really wanted to focus on harm reduction. I had heard of naloxone, of course. We use it in the hospitals. Like if you give people too much morphine, we reverse the effects of morphine or fentanyl by giving naloxone. So that's been around for years in hospital use. And then I read how there were people distributing it throughout the country, so that people could be saved from overdose. And I started trying to figure out what went on with Josh, and I found out the first ambulance that got to my house was a basic ambulance and they didn't carry naloxone. I thought, 'my gosh, naloxone is safer than Tylenol, and ambulances aren't carrying this.'

So then I went up to Chicago in August, and met with Dan Bigg (of the) Chicago Recovery Alliance. He's the one who pioneered putting Naloxone into the hands of people who use drugs, and to their friends and family. So I went up and met with him. He gave me Naloxone, trained me how to train other people. And I started a Naloxone program. You have to go through some state stuff to get approval, but it wasn't a big deal. And it was super easy for me as a physician, because I could write my own standing orders. I could train people. So it was a very easy process.

So I brought Naloxone back, and then I just had to figure out how to get it to people. So I went around. It still was only like four or five months after Josh dying, talking to people. I went to rehabs, because really every person that leaves rehab is at huge risk to relapse overdose and die. So I thought Naloxone should go home with all those people. So I went around to different places. And still at that time, I'm telling my story, I'm crying and, you know, asking them to help me get Naloxone into people's hands. I'm sure they were just looking at me like, 'Oh, boy.' But the Human Service Center listened to me and called me back. They said, 'we'd like to help. We'd like to give that Naloxone, we believe in this.'

And so they started helping through them, people that came into the crisis center, people who were discharged from the from detox from rehab, were trained and given naloxone. So that was the start. And I just tried to spread the word that I had it.

The problem is, there were some people who use drugs who came to me and asked, and they would get a bunch for other people. And I remember one guy who's just like, why are you doing this? And I said, because my son Josh died when he was 16. And there is no naloxone. And I don't want you to be Josh, and I don't want your mom to be me. And he's like, Oh, cool. Yeah, he took this naloxone. I think I met him at Panera and off he went.

So it was hard because people, people who use drugs are very alienated from institutions. They're not comfortable going to hospitals, doctor's offices, any kind of formal settings because they've been treated so poorly by institutions. So yes, I had lots of families come get it, which was great. But I knew I knew the best way to get Naloxone into the hands of people in active drug use was to have a syringe exchange. I had pondered it. And I'm like, I just didn't know if I had it in me. It's a big deal to get a syringe exchange, or Let's call it a comprehensive Harm Reduction program, going. It's a big deal. It's expensive.

You have to get all the supplies, people to run it. So we sat in a group. That was back in 2017. I think so I had been distributing Naloxone and slowly getting more groups to help me. I had trained police officers from all over many counties, local PD'S, anybody that wants to train, I helped them and set up their programs. But again, I wanted naloxone in the hands of people who are the real true first responders. And that's people who use drugs themselves.

Could either of you, looking back 10 years ago, or just even when you really started to get JOLT going, could either of you have imagined where it is today?

Blake Olt: Absolutely not. I said I thought it was just gonna be something to get Narcan to everybody, and then it took on the role of harm reduction. And that's a whole different ballgame, and there's so much involved in it. And there's so many avenues you can you can go with that. We could be doing probably 20 more things, but we just can't, you know, most of it's financial.

Dr. Tamara Olt: Getting to do everything that we want to do is difficult.

Do you have any goals in mind for the next 10 years or next year, anywhere that you'd really like to be in the future, and the community can help push you to that goal?

Dr. Tamara Olt: Not be struggling to pay your bills, and worrying how I'm gonna pay my staff. And that's the place we're at right now. So we need the support of our community, and the donations that we've gotten, especially over the past year were amazing, and they kept us afloat when our grants our grant funding was not coming through. We couldn't have done it without our community. So I want to say thank you to our community because they are vital to our work and to our financial stability.

Blake Olt: I would give anything to have my son back, but I know that he has saved hundreds and hundreds of lives. Thousands. We don't know for sure ever but we know it's a lot of people. It's not peace of mind, because this is with you every minute of every day 'till the day you die. You think of your child every second and every day. I never don't think of him.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.