Megan and Matthew Szabo Endowed Excellence Fund at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.
Liz Pires thought it odd when spoons started vanishing from her kitchen. She asked her teenage children, Matt and Megan, to please put used spoons in the sink or dishwasher and make sure they were not accidentally throwing them with food scraps in the garbage.
“We were a seemingly a normal family, raising our kids as best as we knew. There were issues, of course, but we thought we were dealing with normal teenage defiance issues,” Pires said.
Pires now knows that vanishing spoons were one of the early signs she had missed of her children’s spiraling drug addiction.
“They were wonderful kids,” Pires said. “But there was too much stacked against them. In addition to the social pressures and their age, they had a genetic vulnerability to addiction that we believe was triggered when they received pain medication for injuries. They ended up developing an opioid addiction that migrated over to heroin.”
Megan’s first overdose, when she was in tenth grade, was the wake-up call that started a long, painful journey for the Pires – Szabo family. The journey ended, tragically, with Megan’s death by overdose after being sober for almost six months, on March 30, 2018, followed by Matthew’s on June 27, 2020.
“We were so ignorant about addiction and about mental health,” Pires said. “We didn’t know that addiction is a disease of the body and the brain; it sort of hijacks the brain and interferes with decision-making.”
She found out the hard way that caring for a child with substance-use disorder too often requires going against normal parenting instincts—such as providing pocket money.
“It’s really difficult because there is no manual on what you need to do to have a chance at a successful outcome,” Pires said. “It’s not the same for any two people; it was different for my two kids. It is an extremely complex disease, and every layer you peel back, you learn something new.”
Pires remembers Megan as an emotionally intelligent, intuitive young woman with dreams of being an Instagram influencer that eventually matured into attending junior college to become a radiology technician.
Matt, Pires said, excelled at all sports and loved the outdoors. After graduating from high-school, he was attending Austin Community College and interested in studying software engineering to go into game design.
By sharing her family story, Pires wants to remove the stigma of addiction. She is working on a website (lastoverdose.org) to share what she learned so that other parents in similar situations can recognize early warning signs, find resources and take action.
Pires and her family also wanted to honor Megan and Matt’s memory by making a lasting contribution to addressing our nation’s opioid epidemic. Through Steve Hicks School professor Lori Holleran Steiker, they learned about social work’s holistic approach to substance-use disorders.
“This holistic approach rang true for me because substance-use disorder is such a complex disease,” Pires said. “It requires a multifaceted approach, from developing interventions to creating awareness and advocating for policy changes.”
This spring, Pires and her husband Luis, together with the children’s father, Les Szabo, have established the Megan and Matthew Szabo Endowed Excellence Fund at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Funds distributed from this endowment will support social work students in field placements in the areas of addiction and mental health.
“My kids were college age, wanted to go to UT and live meaningful lives,” Pires said. “This endowment honors them by supporting UT students who are already helping families struggling with addictions, and hopefully inspiring them to pursue a career in this field after they graduate.”
If you are interested in helping with this initiative, please contact Cassie Bernhardt, 512-623-9676 or firstname.lastname@example.org