Buffalo has special meaning for U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who still gets a little emotional when he recalls having first learned about Avi and Julie Israel’s efforts to save others from the fate suffered by their son after he became addicted to opioid prescription drugs.
Michael Israel was just 20 years old when he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound – just a short time after having unsuccessfully trying to find an available bed in a rehabilitation facility, yet again.
Even now, not a day or night passes that Avi doesn’t think about Micheal. Nearly five years later, some days are better than others.
But that’s primarily due to the couple’s decision to use their family tragedy to help save others from experiencing a similar nightmare.
It’s an especially – and timely – effort, especially given Buffalo’s recent uptick in heroin overdose deaths.
They’ve founded a nonprofit organization, Save the Michaels of the World, which got its start at their kitchen table and has subsequently reached out to individuals, communities and even state legislators about the dangers of opioid addiction.
That spirit of community advocacy and grassroots organizing is what brought the Israels to Manchin’s attention, he said.
“They are good, good people, and they were exactly the kind of folks we were looking for because they had been hurt by the nation’s opioid epidemic but weren’t going to give up,” he said.
Manchin said he got word of their efforts after looking nationally to find this kind of activism.
“They never wanted anyone else to lose a child or beloved family member, so they turned their loss into a successful campaign to change the future. This is what America is all about, and this couple represents that spirit,” he said.
Since then, Manchin has made it a point to tell these kinds of stories on the Senate floor in Washington – mostly from West Virginia residents, but increasingly from other states as word of these efforts spread.
At one point, Manchin said he “just wanted to talk to the couple and personally thank them for doing so much to help others.”
And so he placed a call.
That came as quite a surprise to Avi, who still vividly recalls answering the phone to find Manchin at the other end.
Ironically, Manchin called one day as the couple was traveling home from Albany after having been lobbying at the legislature.
Both men still marvel at the other. “I just wanted them to know how much I appreciate all they are doing. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child, and here they are making a difference for someone else,” Manchin said.
“It was my honor to talk to Mr. Israel,” he said.
Israel was likewise impressed with Manchin’s compassion – and humanity.
“I think West Virginia has something really special in their senator. I couldn’t believe he would take time to call me, especially with everything that’s going on in Washington,” he said.
“But when I answered the cell phone, there was Joe Manchin on the other end – talking to me like we’d known each other for a long, long time,” Israel said.