Mom's message on prescription pills hits home at DeSoto Boys & Girls Club in Bradenton

vmannix@bradenton.comDecember 22, 2013 

MANATEE -- The adolescents sitting and standing quietly around the second-floor teen center at the DeSoto Boys & Girls Club never met Justin Rowland.

All they knew of the 23-year-old was the handsome portrait held by his mother as she spoke passionately about his death, his legacy and the powerful message in it.

"I want them to know, to see how dangerous prescription pills are and how you don't have to overdose to die from them," Kelly Eckersen said. "I want them to see the anguish in a mother's face. The anguish in the siblings who are left behind."

The club kids saw it in Eckersen's tears.

They felt her pain.

"I've lost friends so I understand," said one 17-year-old.

Another teen got the message, too.

"Some may think, 'Oh, it's not going to hurt me,'" said a 16-year-old. "But you can die."

Justin Rowland succumbed Nov. 1, 2010, from complications associated with prescription pills.

His passing was the tragic culmination to a series of events that began Aug. 7, 2010. That's when he had his aortic valve replaced with a mechanical heart valve because of a staph infection he incurred from snorting pills.

"I thought my son was given a second chance at life, and then I needed to deal with the addiction issue I had just become aware of," Eckersen said.

Her son was hospitalized a month later and transferred to Shands Hospital in Gainesville for another heart valve procedure. But he suffered a hemorraghic stroke, never regained consciousness and died 11 days later.

"The loss of my son shattered me," Eckersen said.

It was catastrophic for her older daughter, too.

"Justin was my big brother, my best friend," said Hannah Rowland, a Florida State University freshman. "There are times I want to pick up the phone and call him. Like when I got into FSU, but he's not there for me to talk to. Or ask for advice. It's hard even now."

Rowland's organs were donated to five people. And in time, his mother -- with the help of Keller Williams On The Water, where she is a Realtor -- did something as lasting.

Eckersen started the Justin Rowland Foundation.

She made a $700 donation to the DeSoto Club on the foundation's behalf and will continue to do so, funded by her colleagues' generosity.

"I guess you could say I have found my passion in life to fulfill my purpose -- to save as many children as possible by empowering them with the knowledge of just how dangerous prescription pills are," Eckersen said. "Once you take the first, it leads to a second and a third."

Her daughter sees its continued use despite the threat of addiction.

"I see it so much in college. People saying, 'Oh, I take it before I go out to the club,'" the 19-year-old said. "They take different pills because they think it's fun. They don't realize the effect it can have on you even if you don't overdose. You can die from it."

Those words reinforced the vigilance Michelle Agosto feels about making sure her club kids understand the family's message.

"I hope they learn from it: Don't touch any drugs in the future," the DeSoto staffer said. "Maybe tell a friend who can tell another friend, spread the word. I know some of them are exposed to it in their neighborhood. They see things that should not be seen by kids, and we talk about it so they have an idea what not do. Teach them to do what's right every day."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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