A Wrentham family is turning its grief into a community call for action. Barbara and David Gillmeister are refurbishing a historic two-story, yellow clapboard house that was once a nursing home into a sober and recovery house for young men.

Seventeen months ago, their youngest son, Steven, died of a heroin overdose. He was 25. 

They say Steven used to walk by the nursing home when he was a little boy and wonder if he could ever do something with it.

"It's difficult," Barbara Gillmeister said, "and it’s still hard to know I’m not going to see him, so we’ve tried to turn our pain into something positive. Steven would have wanted that."

For the Gillmeisters, the loss of their son, who had a big heart and loved helping others, is almost too much to bear.

" [Steven] was a happy little boy, he had a great smile, he loved to socialize," his mother said.

Steven Gillmeister
Steven Gillmeister, who died of a heroin overdose in 2016
Barbara Gillmeister

Steven's life spiraled into a world of drugs. He started smoking marijuana in junior high school and then moved on to LSD, ecstasy, Percocet, oxycodone and finally, heroin. The Gillmeisters did everything they could to help him. But one night before he was scheduled to go to yet another sober house, Steven overdosed on Fentanyl.

David gives the details of what happened on the night of October 24, 2016. 

"My older son, who's older than Steven, went in to look at him and he knew immediately he was gone. I went in and he was ice cold," he said. "We called police and they tried Narcan, but it was too late. He was gone and had been gone for a while."

The Gillmeisters were distraught, but knew they had to do something. Using a grant fromThe Safe Coalition in Franklin, Massachusetts, a nonprofit that helps support and educate families with substance abuse disorders, they decided to transform the former nursing home into a sober house for young men.

They’re calling it “Gilly’s House," which is what Steven’s friends always called him.

“All of us who knew Steven well know that he would think this is fabulous, he would love the fact that his name is on it," Barbara said. "He would love the fact we are helping people.”

The hope is to get Gilly's House open by April. They plan to welcome 22 young men who are struggling with addiction and are seeking long-term recovery.

There's some work to do. It's a cavernous building, 8,000 square feet. Some of the rooms are bright with sunshine, and other rooms have an institutional feel, so they're making changes and improvements. The Gillmeisters also have a few legal steps to take. They need a building permit and a certificate of occupancy.

They say neighbors have been more positive than negative, but Bill Healey lives across the street from the site and isn't happy about it. He's concerned about security and decreased real estate values.

"One neighbor will be moving out, and we’re all taking a fantastic hit," Healey said. "When these people break out, all these houses are going to look like ATM machines."

Healey also is upset about the lack of public meetings about the sober house plans. In Massachusetts, the Dover Act exempts certain agricultural, religious and educational corporations from zoning restrictions. Gilly's House falls under that act. 

Another neighbor, Douglas Goldman, who’s been living in the area for 30 years, said he doesn’t have a problem with turning the former nursing home into a sober house.

State Rep. Jeffrey Roy (D-Franklin) represents the area and is working with the Gillmeisters to help open the sober house.

He says part of the problem is that there aren't many sober houses in the state. And although opioid deaths decreased by 10 percent in Massachusetts in 2017, people are still dying.

“I understand the frustrations and concerns of community members, but a properly run sober house, properly managed and properly watched over will not produce devastating results," Roy said. "They will find it will add character.”

The Gillmeisters plan to have a 24-hour, live-in director at the sober house and provide all the things their son needed, such as life skills coaching. They say many individuals and groups within the community have been reaching out and offering to help.

David quotes Winston Churchill when explaining why they started this project.  

“The only way for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. “ And so, he said, “We’re not going to do nothing. We were never going to do nothing. We didn’t realize it was going to be a big something. But it was going to be something.”