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'21 Strong: After fighting to save her child, Lake County mother now fights for other families, too

Janelle Lanning Unger's heart is in recovery. She won't stop helping while others are hurting.

MENTOR, Ohio — "I am a mother with a child that has struggled with addiction."

Meet Janelle Lanning Unger. She wants you to know she is just like many of us: Addiction took hold of someone she loves, sending her family to the depths this mother cannot and will not ever forget.

"I remember the very first time I tried to find somewhere to get help, and there wasn’t any," she told 3News. "And the stigma was so bad. It was embarrassing to talk about."

Credit: Janelle Lanning Unger
Janelle's own son battled addiction. She doesn't want anyone to go through what she and her family went through in trying to get help. Janelle's phone rings often. She is a lifeline to many families.

That was 15 years ago, but the stigma still bothers her, and she believes no one else should go through what her family endured.

That experience changed the course of Janelle’s life, and today, her heart is in recovery.

"Sometimes I am up to 1:00, 2:00 in the morning trying to find facilities for people to go to," she confessed, for Janelle is a lifeline to countless families not unlike her own.

"The amounts of people that we have lost in the last couple of years…I would go to four, five or six funerals a month," she recalled. "These people are people that you’ve invested in, you know?"

Janelle’s involvement started 14 years ago with the Lake County Jail Ministry. The vast majority of inmates in the jail, Janelle says, are there for drug-related offenses.

Credit: Janelle Lanning Unger
Janelle started volunteering with Lake County Jail Ministry. She says the vast majority were in jail for drug-related offenses.

"There was a point in time where they weren’t addicts," she said. "They were somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife."

Her mentoring now touches those in all stages of addiction and recovery, from organizing parades to raise awareness and celebrate sobriety to organizations like Hope Over Heroin and Friends of Recovery NEO. The latter is where she proudly showed off her latest labor of love: Arukah Home for Women, a next step recovery house, completely restored by community volunteers and local businesses.

Credit: Janelle Lanning Unger
Janelle volunteers for many organizations and in all facets of addiction and recovery. She says the recovery community "is strong!"

"She has helped us as a ministry, together as a team to move Friends of Recovery forward, to purchase not just one home, but now we are operating three," Dennis Anthony, Northeast Ohio Director of Friends of Recovery, explained.

In addition to Arukah, Friends of Recovery is rehabbing another home for women in next step recovery who have children living with them.

Janelle knows the ups and downs, ins and outs of getting someone into recovery. Her phone rings often. She is always there to answer the call.

"I’ve been that mom on the other end when somebody helped me early on, and I will never, ever forget," she said. "It’s like, for the first time, you can breathe."

Sadly though, there is little time for Janelle to catch her breath right now. The pandemic has made the addiction crisis even worse.

Credit: Janelle Lanning Unger
Arukah House is Janelle's latest labor of love. Friends of Recovery NEO took the dilapidated home and restored it. It is now a next step recovery home for women.

"My phone goes off all the time," she shared. "The isolation is absolutely the worst thing that can happen to somebody who is struggling with addiction."

But the pandemic hasn’t changed Janelle. For those that need help, she will be there, embodying strength and tenacity even in a person’s darkest hour.

Her message is unwavering, a call to action from this '21 Strong warrior: "Have hope, share hope. We can all make a difference."

"A lot of people don’t think they have anything to offer," she lamented. "I promise you, everybody has something to offer."

If you have something offer in the way of time, resources, or donations, you can reach out to Friends of Northeast Ohio HERE.

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