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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Making a difference, 2 years after teen's heroin death

A photo of Natalie Ciappa is seen at

A photo of Natalie Ciappa is seen at the "Not my Child" benefit, Sunday. Ciappa died of a heroin overdose in 2008.(March 28, 2010) Credit: Craig Ruttle

'I'm sorry," Doreen Ciappa tells her bright-eyed, forever 18-year-old daughter, Natalie, as often as she can. "I'm so sorry." To this day, Doreen believes that she didn't do enough, didn't know enough, to save Natalie.

It was two years ago Monday that Doreen found herself screaming for her husband, Victor, after finding their daughter's body sprawled among the sofa cushions in a makeshift garage party room at a friend's house.

A few weeks later, the couple would stand before a battery of reporters to declare that their only daughter, the gifted student and talented singer, had died of a heroin overdose.

Monday, Doreen Ciappa had thought she could make it to work, but quickly decided she couldn't. For Victor, work would be the only way to make it through the day, which also is his birthday.

"This is hard," Doreen said Monday morning, hours before the family would make the trip from Massapequa to Natalie's grave in Farmingdale. "It is always so, so hard."

For two years, the Ciappas have worked publicly to save the children of other parents. And their work has made a difference in the daily battle Long Island is waging against heroin.

"Their story is so heartbreaking," Marylou McDermott, superintendent of the Northport-East Northport school district, said Monday. "It takes a certain strength and resilience to commit themselves to work so this does not happen to another family."

In May, McDermott's district invited the couple to speak at a mandatory pre-prom program for parents and students.

"We could look out over the audience and see parents crying," Doreen Ciappa said. "We could also see some parents who were skeptical at the beginning and who stayed skeptical at the end."

Which makes Doreen and Victor want to get out and work even harder.

Many good things have happened since that day two years ago when Natalie Ciappa died.

Police in Nassau and Suffolk counties are producing maps that show heroin activity in communities across Long Island, under the terms of Natalie's Law. And law enforcement officials in both counties have launched aggressive efforts to arrest and prosecute heroin dealers.

Two years ago, too many public and private schools had their heads buried in the sand about heroin activity among students. Now, they're opening the door for Victor and Doreen Ciappa or for groups, including the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, to take the message straight to students.

Two years ago, heroin use wasn't even a weak blip on the radar of many local municipalities. Now, communities from Smithtown to Massapequa, and the governments of both counties, have launched education and enforcement efforts in an attempt to slow the spread of the drug.

Two years ago, addicts and their families suffered mostly in isolation, embarrassed and alone. That's changed too - as more and more Long Island teens seek treatment for addiction.

"I've had a man come up to me after a program, crying," Doreen Ciappa said Monday. "He told me that Natalie had saved his daughter. He told me that he had heard Vic and I at a program last year and that he went home and searched his daughter's room. He found needles and he said she's been in rehab for a year."

The Ciappas have stopped counting the schools they visit. Doreen can say, however, they've talked to "thousands of kids, thousands of good kids, just like Natalie."

And then Doreen Ciappa begins to cry, as she often does thinking back on that day when she and Victor tried so hard to breathe life back into their daughter, whose body was cold and whose lips were blue. She can't stop thinking about what else she could have done. She said she never will.

But the Ciappas have saved lives. And in so doing, they've ensured that memories of Natalie live on.

As a bright, beautiful young woman who loved to sing.

As a young woman whose death helped pave a way for so many others to live.

"I've met a lot of wonderful people," Doreen Ciappa said.

"It is comforting to think that Natalie lives on, that she's become a part of so many other families, so many other lives," she said. "Victor and I talk about that. Maybe Natalie was a gift to us and to other young people and their parents who hear our story and change their lives."

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