JOHNSON — Before 26-year-old Jenna Tatro died of an opioid overdose in 2019, she called home from a treatment center with a wish to pay it forward.
“We’re going to help someone when I get out,” her family remembers her saying.
That’s why after Jenna relapsed, her parents used her life insurance money to purchase an old Johnson church where their daughter was baptized and received her first Communion. Hoping to support a network of community-based recovery services, the Tatros created the nonprofit organization Jenna’s Promise.
Three years later, it keeps on delivering.
Jenna’s Promise has turned the former St. John’s Catholic Church into a community center for activities ranging from AA meetings to yoga classes, as well as satellite offices of Lamoille County’s North Central Vermont Recovery Center.
The nonprofit organization has also bought other Johnson buildings, ranging from an empty downtown storefront to the former Parker & Stearns building supply center, which recently closed after 128 years. They collectively house the state’s first supervised recovery residence, two lower levels of sober housing, a fundraising coffee roasting company, a surplus store and, coming soon, a café.
“We’re trying to rehabilitate people — and also our community,” said Jenna’s brother, Gregory Tatro.
For more than a half-century, locals have known the family for its three-generation business, GW Tatro Construction. Its late founder, Gerald Warren Tatro, was part of World War II’s D-Day invasion before an injury left him with only half a lung, sending him home to buy a bulldozer and build the first ski trails at the nearby Smugglers’ Notch Resort.
Gerald’s son, Greg (the shorter name differentiates him from his own son, Gregory), grew up to join the business, marry his wife, Dawn, and raise two children. Daughter Jenna was pursuing a pre-med degree focused on psychology when, hospitalized for bruises, she was prescribed opioid painkillers for 30 days.
Jenna went on to battle addiction for six years.
The nonprofit organization named after her is working to offer a circle of care — not only with a network of treatment options, but also businesses that provide jobs and money to pay for 17 beds of sober housing.
“We’re hoping to show this can be a model that can be replicated across the state and across the country,” Gregory Tatro said.
Recognized by Gov. Phil Scott in his 2020 State of the State address, Jenna’s Promise also is aiming to educate people who don’t know Vermont reported nearly as many deaths from overdoses during the pandemic as from Covid-19.
The organization recently hosted a town hall on the issue with two congressional candidates, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Grey. There, a man asked why he had to stop working as a recovery coach because of the field’s low pay and lack of benefits, while a woman questioned why the dealer who sold her daughter a lethal dose of fentanyl was released on $500 bail.
The answers, they learned, aren’t simple. But Jenna’s family and friends said they’re willing to do the work.
“The last time we gathered here for her was during the reception for her funeral,” Gregory Tatro said at the former church. “We spoke about how she was like a stone dropped into a lake — her form disappearing, but her impact rippling ever onward. I think we have a chance to turn a moment into momentum.”
(Editor’s note: VTDigger reporter Kevin O’Connor moderated the town hall mentioned in this story.)
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