Kristina Welch, 19, with an assortment of items from a care package that is part of a service project she started called The Julia Project. She puts together the packages for teenagers living in halfway homes as they to recover from addiction. She began the project after losing her own cousin, Julia Sanchez, to a drug overdose. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)
Photo: Henry P. Taylor
Photo: Henry P. Taylor

Born from tragedy, The Julia Project shares hope with rehab patients

In about a month, roughly 500 people in halfway homes in the Woodstock area will receive a care package. Included in it are basic necessities, a journal and package of gummy bears. While it may seem like a random assortment of items, they’re all included to honor the memory of Julia Sanchez.

Julia died on Oct. 6, 2015 when she was 19 years old from a drug overdose while attempting to recover from a heroin addiction. Her mother, Wendy Welch, said that even though it’s the toughest thing imaginable to lose her daughter, she witnessed firsthand how much Julia struggled and fought before her death.

Julia Sanchez died of a drug overdose in October 2015 while attempting to overcome a heroin addiction. (Courtesy Kristina Welch)
Photo: For the AJC

“She never saw herself having a normal life and all the things that most young people dream of having in their future,” Wendy said. “She got to the point where she couldn’t see a future, and that’s what was heartbreaking.”

Attempting to give others in a similar situation hope, Kristina Welch, Sanchez’s first cousin, decided to create a service project titled The Julia Project to raise money to give people in halfway homes those care packages.

“These people deserve to have something — some hope,” Kristina said.

The long road to rehab

Kristina and Julia were born roughly 14 months apart. Kristina said they both had very similar tastes except for one minor difference.

“Every holiday or birthday, we got the same presents. Her stuff was pink and mine is blue, always,” Kristina said. “So we’d have to open our presents at the same time … and that continued up until our last Christmas together.”

Julia Sanchez, left, and Kristina Welch, right, were born only 16 months apart and were often mistaken as sisters. They were actually cousins. (Courtesy Kristina Welch)
Photo: For the AJC

As Kristina described it, Julia began experimenting with drugs and alcohol around her senior year of high school, but eventually those vices were no longer were enough.

As a result, Julia ended up experimenting with opiates, and she got her boyfriend and best friend at the time to use as well.

According to Wendy, obtaining heroin was practically free for Julia since she had access to a highly sought-after commodity: syringes.

“My husband is a type-one diabetic, and one of the sad things is that most places you go to, you have to have a prescription to get syringes,” Wendy said. “Since we have a prescription for insulin and syringes, she could take syringes and trade them for heroin.”

Kristina said her family didn’t find out about Julia’s addiction until around January 2015 after she got sick at a Christmas party.

Most would expect the next tough step to be the actual detox and recovery, but Carrie Delong, Wendy’s sister and Julia and Kristina’s aunt, said getting to the recovery stage was harder than most would imagine.

“You just think that you find out your kid has an addiction, and you go get them help like going to the store and purchasing help for them. It’s not at all like that,” Delong said. “There are lots of hoops to jump through.”

Whether it was a hospital’s emergency room, rehab or detox center, Wendy and Julia continually heard the same answer: You can’t die from a heroin withdrawal.

“If you go into the hospital and say, ‘I’m an alcoholic and I’m trying to quit drinking,’ they will admit you,” Wendy said. “They won’t do that” with heroin.

Wendy added that many people actually have to lie about using alcohol or Xanax in addition to opiates to get admission for detox and rehabilitation services.

Through persistent hospital emergency room visits, Julia finally got admitted to begin her detox.

‘I was proud she didn’t give in’

What followed were days of agony. Wendy said Julia felt like her skin was being ripped off her body.

Julia ended up going to a rehab center for a few months and was released after finishing the program. However, she soon began using again, prompting Wendy to send Julia to a transitional community in Florida where Julia worked and received rehabilitation services — similar to those provided in a halfway home. Julia hated it there and saw it as a constant temptation.

“She could look out her window and see people buying heroin because people prey on communities like that,” Wendy said.

On Oct. 5, 2015, she got a friend to pick her up and bring her to Athens to look for new rehab options without Wendy knowing. Wendy was actually heading to Florida to pick her up that day to look at alternative rehab options. By the time she figured out Julia had left, it was too late.

“She didn’t have her medications since she left the facility which administered them,” Wendy said. “One of the people in the house that she went to had Methadone. She tried to use that to substitute for her medication and then took a Xanax with it, and the combination killed her.”

The family was devastated by Julia’s death. On top of being shocked, Delong said, “We were all super duper proud of the progress she had made and her work in rehab.”

That progress was confirmed when the toxicology results came back, and there was one notable substance missing from Julia’s system when she died: heroin.

“Part of me was very proud that heroin wasn’t on (the toxicology report) because everyone assumed that she couldn’t take it and used heroin,” Wendy said. “To find out that she was actually trying everything she could not to use heroin, and that’s what killed her … I was proud that she didn’t give in.”

The birth of The Julia Project

Kristina was devastated when she was told of Julia’s passing and said it took a long time before she fully accepted it. Now, with the creation of The Julia Project, she’s forced to talk about and relive Julia’s death, but she said she now sees the silver linings.

“I almost look at it like, it had to happen to one of them to make a difference,” Kristina said. “And now that she’s passed away, her boyfriend has gone to rehab and is now clean. Almost all of her friends are now clean.”

February 24, 2017, Atlanta, Georgia - Kristina Welch, 19, pulls out a pair of socks included in one of The Julia Project’s a care packages. The items are sent to teenagers living in halfway homes as they try to recover from addiction. Welch’s cousin Julia Sanchez, died of a drug overdose while trying to shake a heroin addiction. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)
Photo: For the AJC

The Julia Project was Kristina’s idea after she was nominated as Woodstock’s Outstanding Teen because of many community service hours. Even though she decided not to participate in the competition to become Atlanta’s Outstanding Teen, the idea for The Julia Project stuck.

The Julia Project’s main event is a talent show called “A box For Talent” on March 3 at 7 p.m. at the Elm Street Cultural Arts Village, and all of the money raised will go toward making the care packages. Tickets cost $5.

Personal items in the care package include a journal and bag of gummy bears. Wendy said Julia had written poems, songs, “Dear God” letters and journals since she was young, but she wrote a journal entry every day while in rehab and in Florida.

“You’re there with people you don’t know — people who have issues themselves,” Wendy said. “Sometimes you just need to talk to somebody, and maybe the person in the room with you isn’t the one to talk to at the time.”

As for gummy bears, Kristina explained that those were Julia’s favorite sweet. She added that even on the night Julia died, Wendy stopped at a gas station and bought gummy bears to give her once they reunited. However, those gummy bears now sit in a buried casket with Julia.

Each package will also include a handwritten letter of encouragement from a student at Etowah High School, which Kristina attended. Each package will be boxed April 4 by Kristina and community volunteers, and they will be delivered on the week of April 10.

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