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Selfless Among Us: Avi Israel & Save the Michaels

After losing his son to suicide because of an opioid addiction, Avi Israel made it his life's work to ensure other WNYers would get the help his son was denied.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and 2 On You Side is recognizing a man who turned the tragedy surrounding the death of his son, into a mission to help others.

Thousands of Western New Yorkers who themselves and their loved ones have battled opioid addiction have gotten help through the non-profit organization Save the Michaels of the World. It's founder, Avi Israel, is one of the "Selfless Among Us." 

The mission of Save the Michaels is to bring hope to those struggling with addiction and their families. That mission is so important to Avi Israel and his wife Julie, because hopelessness ultimately led to the loss of their 20-year-old son Michael David Israel in 2011. Michael was battling an addiction to painkillers after being diagnosed with Crohn's disease and undergoing multiple surgeries.

On May 17, 2011, Michael attempted suicide by sitting in his running car in a closed garage. Avi says they rushed Michael to ECMC where he sat in the CPAP unit for 12 hours before eventually just being told to go home.

"We tried everywhere to get help. Every place you called, you got an answering machine," Avi said.

Just weeks later, on June 4, Michael finally found the courage to call his social worker and ask to go to in-patient treatment. Avi said she called back 5 minutes later and told him there were no beds available. He handed the phone to his father.

"He handed me the phone and said, 'You talk to her. I'm done.' I said, 'What do we do now? He needs something right now. He's really hurting.' She said, 'I can't help you,'" Avi recalled.

He said Michael went to a room in the house where a rifle used for skeet shooting was kept, and he used it to shoot himself.

"And I held him and I said that I love you and everything will be ok now. And then I heard him take his last breath," Avi said. 

"After we buried Michael, I decided that something has to be done. We can't let Michael go without doing something about it. Because if you don't bring it out to the open, more people will die." 

Within days of his passing, Avi and Julie Israel went public with Michael's story and created the non-profit organization Save The Michaels of the World. Avi retired from his job as an electrician to devote all his time to the organization. Within almost exactly one year of Michael's death, they accomplished their first goal to slow down the distribution of opiates through New York's I-STOP program, a computer system tying doctors and pharmacists together to keep addicts from doctor shopping for more pills.

"We knocked on so many doors. Julie and I practically lived in Albany. Eventually, we got it done unanimously, which is really unusual," Avi said.

Their next focus was to fight for more available treatment beds.

"I think when we first started there was only somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 beds in Western New York. We have over 200 beds now," he said.

They changed even more laws.

 "Michael was refused treatment by Blue Cross Blue Shield. You had to be pre-approved for treatment. We changed that law. You don't need to be pre-approved. You only had 7 days of treatment. That's changed to 28 days or whatever the counselors think they need. Doctors were not educated in palliative care. They are now. They have to take a course to renew their license," he said.

Save the Michaels also established a transportation system to get people to treatment, court, doctors appointments, and elsewhere.

"Transportation is one of the biggest barriers to maintaining recovery," Avi said.

And Save the Michaels opened recovery centers in Erie and Niagara counties.

"When you call here there's a live person who answers the phone," Avi said. 

"The first question is not what kind of insurance do you have, the first question is 'what would you like to do and how can we help?'"

And that person can sympathize with those calling for help, because almost all of their 50 employees have a personal connection to addiction. 

Jessica Petty is a recovering addict herself. She began as a receptionist, and after almost two years at Save the Michaels, she is now an assistant to Avi.

"They taught me everything and really helped me get my feet under me and really help me become a whole person again. I would not be this far without them," Petty said.

At 70 years old, Avi Israel is not slowing down. He was recently appointed by NY Attorney General Letitia James to the Opioid Settlement Board to help make recommendations on how $1.5 billion in funds should be spent, so others might get the help his son Michael was denied. 

"It's not a moral failure. It's not a weak person. It's a disease. It's a disease like cancer. It's a disease like heart attacks. It's a disease that kills faster than both of those diseases. And it needs to be treated like a disease. And unfortunately with all the progress that we made in the last 11 years we still have the same kind of issues. How do you find a bed? How do you get someone who sympathizes with you? How do you get someone who understands what you're going through? And that's why we started Save the Michaels." 

And how does Avi feel about saving so many lives?

"It's a double edged sword. You really are happy for the person because they have another chance at life, but then you say to yourself why wasn't there someone who blazed this trail before us? But I guess you can't rely on other people. You have to do things yourself. So we had to do it ourselves"

Avi's next project is building transitional housing for men and women coming out of treatment and giving them the resources they need to get back on their feet. A facility that will house 12 men in Newfane is expected to open in December 2022. They're starting to work on the women's' facility on Brinkman Street now.

If you or someone you love needs help, call Save the Michaels of the World at 716-984-8375 or visit the Facebook page here.

To nominate someone to be featured in Channel 2's Selfless Among Us series, email details to Melissa.Holmes@wgrz.com. 

To see past Selfless Among Us features, click the videos below.

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