After an opioid overdose ended Nicholas Schivito’s life, his mother Brenda founded a nonprofit called Angels Against Addiction.
By Pete Kennedy
Brenda Schivito is a social worker by training. Before her sons were born, she worked as a crisis counselor in Delaware’s Christina School District.
“Unfortunately, it could never have prepared me for the struggles and anguish that we had to go through with Nicholas,” she said.
In January 2018, Schivito discovered her 22-year-old son in the bathroom of their West Chester home, where he had suffered a fatal drug overdose. Nicholas had struggled for years with opioid addiction — a prolonged tragedy that also exacted a toll on his parents and older brother.
In the wake of his death, Schivito founded a nonprofit organization called Angels Against Addiction — The Nicholas Schivito Foundation. She goes to schools — and anywhere else she’s invited — to share her family’s story.
“It’s my mission to save other families from this hurt,” she said. “We’re trying to raise awareness of this disease, end the stigma surrounding it and help those in early recovery.”
Angels Against Addiction gives financial support to recovery programs, often in the form of “scholarships” covering room and board for residents in them. One of the beneficiaries, Healthy Habitats, named its Glenolden facility “Nick’s House.” The home sleeps 15 men and has a floor designated for veterans and first responders.
“Through our loss, Nick is helping others on their path to recovery. That’s the kind of kid he was, he would always lend a hand, always try to help somebody,” Schivito said.
As a boy, Nicholas was a happy-go-lucky kid who stayed busy, and he was accepting of people regardless of their differences.
“He was always doing something to make us laugh,” Schivito said. “He was very endearing in that way.”
He loved sports and played a lot of basketball and baseball with his friends, and at age 12 earned his black belt in karate. Since the time he could hold a racquet, tennis was his passion, until the grips of addiction stole that passion.
Nicholas’s drug use began around age 14. Unbeknownst to his parents, he would bike to a local convenience store where he could legally purchase “spice,” a mind-altering mix of herbs and toxic chemicals, sometimes called synthetic marijuana or K2.
“One of the side effects can be psychosis,” Schivito said. “That’s exactly what happened to Nick. He went psychotic, and that landed him in a behavioral health facility.”
During the early years of high school, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which can be compounded by substance abuse. He graduated in 2014, but after high school he began using other drugs.
“It causes a lot of havoc and chaos in a family. It’s unlike other diseases a child may be afflicted with. With diabetes, they can get insulin. With cancer, you can give them chemotherapy, though I don’t wish that on anybody. But substance abuse disorder is a disease, and only the individual can corral their own behavior,” Schivito said.
“It’s counterintuitive to a mother’s job, but we had to ask Nicholas to leave our home at one point. If the individual isn’t ready to get the help, isn’t ready to become sober, you have to preserve your own sanity.”
Nicholas went through different inpatient and recovery placements, and eventually moved back home. At the end of 2017, he seemed to be doing well and was working a seasonal job with UPS. But during the early hours of Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, he snorted oxycodone, not knowing it was laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times stronger then morphine. It ended his life.
Nicholas was one of the 112 accidental drug overdose deaths in Chester County in 2018. Across Pennsylvania, there were 4,491, the third-highest in the nation.
Schivito — who holds a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in education — hopes that Nicholas’ story will make clear to students the potential dangers of drug abuse. She has spoken in local classrooms, her church and as part of area addiction discussion panels. She appeared on NBC 10 and has raised awareness of the stigma of the disease of addiction at the annual Angels Against Addiction fundraisers.
The group’s first fundraiser was a tennis event and silent auction at Radley Run Country Club in 2018 that also included a presentation on the opioid crisis by county District Attorney Tom Hogan. With no overhead, all of the money Angels Against Addiction raises goes to help men and women in early recovery, namely those coming out of 28-day programs and looking to continue on the path of sobriety.
“Twenty-eight days is not enough, but in many cases it’s all insurance allows,” Schivito said. “People have nowhere to go. Their family is done with them, and they need to be with like-minded individuals to be able to get back on their feet.”
The residential recovery programs, which usually cost between $150 and $400 per week, offer the basic elements of stability like shelter, food and an opportunity to find a job.
“Recovery is wonderful, it’s possible, however it’s very difficult,” Schivito said. “It’s a battle that needs to be fought every day.”