Andy Duran serves as executive director of LEAD (Linking Efforts Against Drugs). The nonprofit organization provides drug abuse and suicide prevention information to communities in the suburbs of Chicago, as well as throughout the country.
“We go into the schools, work directly with students, make class presentations, and try to get students to make healthy choices,” Duran said. “We work with parents and educators, too.” LEAD also assists churches, park districts, and local community groups.
Following a string of student suicides, LEAD began offering Text-A-Tip, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, anonymous text crisis hotline. Middle- and high-school students may text at any time with any concern they are having, Duran said.
“Text-A-Tip was first meant to be a suicide prevention system: if you were sad, or felt like you were going to hurt yourself. Students are struggling with lots of different things. There is a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiety that our young people are dealing with. It can be bullying; it can be depression.”
Text-A-Tip is now used in more than 100 school districts. Some districts use it as a bullying hotline, while others route the teens through to more intensive help.
Each text is accompanied by a locator code, Duran said. “We take those and build them into our system so that we can know essentially the region of the country a person is [texting] from,” he said. “We recruit and train licensed mental health professionals who will respond within two or three minutes.”
It is not meant to be therapy, Duran explained. “It is meant to get a student out of a dark place. We always affirm them for texting, make sure they are safe, and then help them come up with the resource they need. It might be going into a school resource office or a licensed mental health professional.”
Duran and the LEAD team also combat the opiate crisis wracking the country. A Way Out is a law enforcement-assisted diversion program, Duran explained. “Anyone addicted to opiates or any drug can go into one of our participating police departments with any drugs and paraphernalia, and they will not be prosecuted. Their stuff is taken, and a trained officer escorts them to a treatment facility.”
In addition, LEAD is one of the few agencies that can distribute naloxone (Narcan), a prescription medication that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. LEAD can also train partner organizations in the use of the medicine.
To combine multiple services, LEAD developed Lake County Help, a mobile app. “It takes one click to call 911, Text-A-Tip, Narcan, or A Way Out,” he said. “We’re trying to look at all the services and bring them together so it is easier for people to access help.” LEAD’s efforts saves hundreds of youth each year.
Duran’s work with LEAD may not seem like a direct use of the bachelor’s degree in theology that he earned in 2001 at University Campus, but he is serving his community. After receiving his degree, the Jacksonville, FL, native headed to Chicago to work as a youth minister at a Catholic church for five years. “I’ve always been called to work with young people,” he said.
He and his wife, Lisa, have been married 12 years and are parents to daughters, ages 7 and 4.
Prior to joining LEAD, Duran served as executive director of the Peacebuilders Initiative, a leadership development program based on the South Side of Chicago that trains youth for advocacy and leadership around a variety of social justice issues.
“What I learned most at Saint Leo was leadership,” Duran said. “The academics were rigorous. But I learned how to be an ethical leader. … People were faithful; they were people who cared about students above everything else. And the Benedictine values came into play, too.”
Duran hopes to continue living those values and helping youths to make the right choices to lead healthy, productive lives.