Sebastopol couple dedicated to ending stigma of addiction
“I don’t know if he’s alive. ... I don’t know if he’s breathing.”
After hearing these words on the other end of a phone line, Micah Sawyer rushed to his son, Micah Jr., with his wife Michelle. Micah Jr. had been found unconscious by his mother, Denise Hamlow, on that summer morning in 2019.
But before they could reach him, Denise called them to tell them their son had died.
Micah Jr. had struggled with a heroin addiction but while living with his mother had managed almost seven months of sobriety when he relapsed and overdosed on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
The 22-year-old was captain of his high school football team, popular and loved by his parents. Unlike some who struggle with drug addiction, he didn’t have a history of addiction in his family.
Yet on that summer morning in 2019, the Sawyer family of Sebastopol and Hamlow lost their beloved son, best friend and loyal brother.
“I felt helpless. It was so hard,” his father, Micah Sawyer, said. “You know, it’s just crazy — everything else in our lives I could always fix, but I couldn’t fix this. ... I couldn’t save him.”
Yet for all its heartbreak, that day propelled the Sawyers, with an intention to honor Micah Jr.’s life and heal, to create Micah’s Hugs, a nonprofit with a mission to end the stigma of addiction and mental illness by bringing awareness through community education and providing resources for those in need.
For the Sawyers’ dedication to helping others and combating the stigma of addiction, they’ve been selected to receive the North Bay Spirit Award for December. A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award highlights volunteers who demonstrate exceptional initiative for a cause, often identifying a need in the community and finding an enterprising way to fill it.
In the last year, Micah’s Hugs (Micah Jr. often embraced family and friends with warm “bear hugs”) has given 17 people struggling with addiction scholarships for six weeks of recovery services at Pura Vida, a drug rehabilitation program in Santa Rosa.
Micah’s Hugs focuses not just on addiction recovery, but also on reducing harm, by training volunteers or community members how to use Narcan nasal spray, a life-saving emergency treatment that can reverse an opioid overdose. The nonprofit also hands out fentanyl testing strips to the community, especially to homeless people, and plans to present an educational film in Sonoma County schools to teach students about drug addiction prevention and mental illness.
One scholarship recipient is Justina Holguin. She was once addicted to cocaine and alcohol, but since Micah’s Hugs took her under their wing, she’s been sober for 11 months.
“If I didn’t get that scholarship ... I probably would’ve never made it, to be honest,” Holguin said. “They saved my life.”
The Sawyers first met Holguin in March 2020 at a sober living home, where they were looking for people to interview for their educational film. She volunteered to share her story with them that day.
Nearly a year later, Holguin is working as a counselor at Pura Vida.
For the Sawyers, learning how Micah’s Hugs has helped others is the most meaningful part of what they do.
“Hearing about how we impacted (Holguin) is the most fulfilling part of this work,” Michelle Sawyer said. “Seeing the work come into fruition, it just means so much. Getting clean is not an easy task. We were touched by her story.”
Ending the stigma
Inside the Sawyer’s Sebastopol home, Micah Jr.’s bright blue football jersey — number 64 — is framed and displayed with a photo of him proudly holding his helmet in the air.
He was captain of the football team at Analy High School. He loved tacos. His friends adored him. He was protective of those he loved and could spark a conversation with just about anyone. He grew up in a supportive, loving family.
But behind closed doors, he was battling a heroin addiction.
“People think that if you’re a drug addict, then you must be struggling in school, have no friends and come from a family of addicts,” Micah Sawyer said. “But my son didn’t fit any of those cliches. It’s important that people understand that it can happen to anyone, no matter their background. We want to break the black cloud that hovers over addiction.”
In 2019, as Micah Jr.’s funeral approached, the family asked loved ones to send donations instead of flowers through Facebook, Venmo and GoFundMe, to raise money for resources to help people recovering from addiction. After massive support from the community, Micah’s Hugs officially became a nonprofit in November 2020.