‘Why is no one talking about this?’
After a family tragedy, Jen Short dedicates her life to raising awareness on the dangers of drugs.
Saturday evening in 2012
Jen Short enjoyed a classic New England Thanksgiving meal in her Wallingford, CT home with her husband, Ken, her son Tre’, daughter Taylor, Taylor’s boyfriend DJ, and Ken’s children, Jessica and Samantha, and their children Angel and Landon.
Daughter Taylor was 20 years old and had a love of dance and the performing arts. She was featured in advertisements for the nationally recognized local Halloween-haunt Trail of Terror as a leading “scare” actress. No matter the season, she was the life of the house, a caring and thoughtful person who young and old turned to for advice. Her plans were to attend college and pursue a career as a counsellor.
Like most kids, Taylor’s life wasn’t all roses. As a biracial student in a mostly white small town, she faced more than her share of teasing, even being called the n-word. “She was beautiful but didn’t see herself as attractive. She was struggling to find her place.”
After the holiday meal, Jen gave Taylor and her boyfriend, DJ a ride back to his home for the weekend. As she hugged her daughter goodbye. her last words were “I love you.”
And, as Taylor always said, “I love you too, mom.”
Jen was driving to work when she received a phone call from an unrecognizable number. She pulled over. It was the New Haven Police Department.
“Am I speaking with Jen Short?
Could we speak with you in person?”
Jen first thought that her daughter was somehow in trouble, perhaps for a traffic violation. Then she realized this sounded much worse. “Is this the call no mother ever wants to hear?”
There was a pause. “It might be best if you had someone there with you.”
Jen called her husband and her mother who met her minutes later in the driveway of her home. When the police arrived, the detective asked to speak with Jen privately, but she said “Whatever you have to say to me you can say in front of my loved ones who are here to support me.”
The detective informed Jen and the family that Taylor had been found dead. The cause of death was still unknown, but it appeared that drugs may have been involved. Taylor’s boyfriend had been taken to intensive care and it wasn’t clear if he would survive.
Jen was in shock but her first thought was of her son. She rushed to the high school to get Taylor’s younger brother removed from class before word leaked out on social media of her passing.
Taylor’s boyfriend DJ did survive. He told Jen that this was only the “second or third time” that he and Taylor had partaken in this type of behavior. They purchased what they thought was cocaine from some kids. Toxicology reports later revealed a mixture of morphine, heroin/ fentanyl and cocaine. After a lot of research, Jen described it as “a cocktail for disaster.”
I got her to a counselor,” said Jen. “But in hindsight, maybe I could have acted sooner.”
Anger to action
Two weeks after the funeral, Jen heard from Taylor’s friends about other young people in the community who had died of overdoses. “I was shocked,” remembered Jen. “I said ‘Why is no one talking about this? Why isn’t something being done?’”
Jen and her husband went to the Wallingford town council to talk about the growing problem of drugs in their community. The town fathers were sympathetic but skeptical. “The most frustrating part of it was that no one believed my story.” recalled Jen.
She and her husband decided to take action. “We went door to door. We got statistics from the coroner’s office, from the fire department and from the police department,’ said Jen.
Jen returned to the town council with facts. The town had lost 53 people, 45 of them under the age of 26, to drug overdoses in the last three years.
This was more than a few isolated incidents. The Medical Examiner’s office labeled the situation an ‘epidemic’ for the Wallingford community.
Jen, a Senior Analyst in Customer Service Vendor Management, and her husband set up two non-profit organizations:
The Taylor Short Foundation provides a scholarship fund in honor of Taylor to educate the public and our youth about the dangers of drugs, prescription medication and alcohol. Jen organizes an annual themed dance in memory of Taylor to fund this cause.
Jen and her husband Ken also created The Coalition For a Better Wallingford, with a mission to “to produce healthy, caring, and responsible citizens by raising awareness and reducing substance abuse among our youth.” The organization sponsors and promotes events and offers resources to those struggling with substance abuse and bereavement. Jen continues to speak at elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges around the state about the dangers of drug use.
“Some people see substance abuse as a choice but I think it’s a disease. I think it all really stems from mental health.” said Jen.
In the eight years since Jen and her husband began raising awareness, Wallingford has seen a drop in drug-related deaths. But opioids have become a larger problem for all ages, a challenge that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. “Because of COVID, with folks being on lockdown, drug deaths from an opioid overdose are up,” warned Jen.
Through it all, Verizon has been in Jen’s corner. “If you know me at all, you know I bleed red and black,” she said, grinning. Jen appreciated the extended time off she was given following Taylor’s death, the notes of encouragement she received from her colleagues, but, most importantly, the support and guidance she has received from her dear Verizon friend of 22 years, Laura Connolly, also a Senior Analyst in Customer Service Vendor Management. Jen is also grateful for the funds she receives for every 50 hours of volunteer work, which she funnels back into Coalition initiatives for the community.
She advises any family struggling with substance abuse or dealing with the death of a child to seek help. “Our EAP, or Employee Assistance Program, has resources that are there for you if you find yourself in need so please, don’t hesitate to ask.”
That brings Jen to her most important piece of advice for other parents. “First and foremost, listen to your children. They have so much to tell us. What I wouldn’t do to be able to sit at a table and listen to Taylor today.”