Everett’s Catherine Lee, whose 20-year-old son Corey died late last year after a drug overdose, ran in a long-distance Ragnar Relay over the weekend. She carried “hearts” with the names of recovering or deceased addicts, and plans to raise awareness of addiction through a nonprofit, Choices for a Change. (Dan Bates/The Herald)

Running for their lives: Mom has mission to educate about addiction

Catherine “Cathi” Lee is a mom, a runner, and now, the champion of a cause she once couldn’t have imagined would touch her Everett family.

Her mission is to educate others about the deadly hazard of addiction. It was born of the most agonizing loss.

On Dec. 8, 20-year-old Corey Lee lost his war with drugs. The Eastern Washington University student died of an accidental overdose that happened the day before Thanksgiving. He had been using cocaine and Xanax.

In January, Herald writer Eric Stevick wrote about Corey, an Everett High School graduate and Eagle Scout who had lettered in basketball and cross country. As they mourn the loss of their firstborn child, Cathi and David Lee, along with their 19-year-old son, Cameron, are creating a nonprofit, Choices For A Change.

This weekend, 46-year-old Cathi Lee took her first big steps in their quest. Through awareness, they want to bring addiction out of the darkness. Lee was part of a 12-member team that ran Friday and Saturday in the Reebok Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage. The nearly 200-mile route takes runners from Blaine to Langley.

Lee planned to run three legs of the journey. The longest was a 10-mile trek taking her across the Deception Pass Bridge before sunrise Saturday. Her schedule included a 6.8-mile leg early in the run, and 3.8 miles near the end of the 196-mile course.

With her, sewn into a blue felt heart, were at least 27 names of recovering or deceased addicts or alcoholics. For each name, she sewed a bead on the heart. On her Facebook page, Lee wrote that she would dedicate the predawn run over Deception Pass to those whose names she’d carry.

She had asked on Facebook for donations of at least $10 per name to help accomplish some Choices For A Change goals. They include creating a map of drug-dependency treatment and counseling services, support groups and other resources, “so that anyone can find help,” she said. By Friday, she had raised $890.

“Of course Corey’s in my heart every single day,” she said. Along with Corey’s name and others, Lee carried in the cloth heart the name of someone in my family whose life has been derailed by drugs.

In her elegant north Everett home, Lee talked Wednesday about her family’s struggle to find age-appropriate help for Corey. When they learned he was using drugs as a high school freshman, she said a doctor dismissed their parental worries by telling them kids often experiment with drugs. “And trying to find a counselor sometimes took six weeks,” she said.

Lee said a school administrator once asked “What’s that?” when they raised the issue of oxycodone being passed around by students. “There needs to be more awareness,” she said. Yet she believes zero-tolerance policies at schools and in sports can set young people up for failure by not allowing them to stay engaged in positive activities while seeking treatment.

Corey participated in outpatient substance-abuse treatment, but his mother said those experiences weren’t ideal. “There’s not a lot available for teens,” she said.

“Right now it’s this shameful thing,” Lee said of addiction. “It would be nice if it weren’t the dirty secret, if we all could talk about it,” she said.

Cancer was once a hush-hush topic, she said. Now, cancer sufferers join support groups and reach out for help.

Choices For A Change also may push for legislation, Lee said, especially involving prescribed pain medications. Lee said she has asked pharmacists to fill prescriptions for half what a doctor ordered. She hopes that buy-back policies will one day be in place for unneeded pills.

Cameron Lee, a swimmer who will attend Millikin University in Illinois this fall, has talked to kids about losing his brother to drugs. While at Adams State University in Colorado earlier this year, he spoke with a middle school group of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).

A 2015 graduate of Everett High, Cameron hopes to address an anti-drug assembly at his high school alma mater. “It’s not just an epidemic in Everett, it’s an epidemic everywhere,” he said of drug dependency.

On July 8, seven months after losing her older son, Cathi Lee wrote on Facebook that she struggles with the “finality of his absence every hour.

“I work daily to reconcile my heart and find reason for this tragedy,” Lee wrote. She said her family felt shame about Corey’s disease of addiction. They hid it from people they cared about, people who perhaps could have helped.

This weekend, Lee laced up her running shoes. Along with her grief, she bore the names of addicts — of people — who suffered, and some who suffer still. She isn’t hiding. She is talking.

“People say we’re very brave for bringing it forward. I don’t see it as a choice,” Lee said. “I feel that by talking about addiction, we can change the epidemic.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Corey Lee’s family is working to create a nonprofit, Choices For A Change, to help educate young people, families and schools about the dangers of addiction. Lee, 20, of Everett, died Dec. 8, 2015, from an accidental drug overdose. Learn more at: http://choicesforachange.org/

Donations may be made online at www.gofundme.com/creatingpathways or mailed to:

Banner Bank, FBO Tribute to Corey Lee, 2531 Colby Ave., Everett WA 98201

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