Saying no for Nick

When Steve Cody isn't busy attempting to build a billion-dollar software company, he's trying to save the lives of drug-addicted teens. The first is his job. The second is his mission. And it's personal.
By Julie Ireton

“All I’ve done is worked my entire life, so I feel it’s important. I’ve got an opportunity to get involved in this. The light is shining.”

Steve Cody sits in the front row of a packed auditorium in Kanata, a suburb on the western edge of Ottawa.

There are hundreds of people here, and those who can’t find chairs line the room’s walls. Still more cram the doorway.

Steve, his wife Natalie and their daughter Katrina listen intently as speakers describe the recent spate of opioid overdoses that’s gripped the city.

It’s Steve’s first meeting about the crisis. Until now, he hadn’t realized the terrifying scope of the problem. He’s been busy enough trying to nurture his new software company.

Steve sits listening, frowning and fidgeting in his seat until he stands and asks for the microphone.

As he begins his story, the room falls silent.

“About four years ago, our son was addicted to drugs. I knew we needed help,” Steve begins.

The audience sits rapt.

The first stop on Steve’s journey was the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, where he was told there was no help available. He turned to the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, where he discovered there were no detox or rehabilitation programs for his teenage son.

“They say, ‘Call intake, we’ll call you in a couple of months.’”

Desperate for help, he even drove to the offices of his MP and MPP, but neither could offer assistance.

“I said, ‘Look, my son’s got a drug problem. I need help, like I need help today,’” Steve recalls telling them. “I’ve done the 3 a.m. drives, I’ve done it all.”

As Steve spoke, his wife and daughter wept and shuddered in their seats. Others, perhaps familiar with those early-morning drives looking for sons and daughters, wiped away tears.

“The moral of this story is, my son is dead from drugs. So everybody in this room, we have to yell really loud.”

Instead, the room fell completely silent. No one spoke. What was left to say?

Nick Cody was 18 when he died.

On June 23, 2013, everyone gathered for Steve’s birthday party at the Cody family home in Barrhaven, another Ottawa suburb.

All five kids were there, plus friends.

As the party wrapped up, Nick told his parents he was heading out to a movie.

“We were sitting on the patio and he opened the door and said, ‘Love you, mom,’ and left,” says Natalie, her voice almost a whisper. It’s been nearly four years, but the memory is still raw.

“He never went to the movie,” Steve continues. “He bought a pill, MDMA. It’s fairly common for kids to buy that. It’s like a rave drug. He was with someone else and they each got a pill. The pill Nick bought was not fine, and it just burns your body inside.”

The phone in the kitchen rang sometime after 1:30 a.m. on June 24.

“It was paralyzing. There was a numbness and just an inability to even accept it. We still find ourselves shaking our heads. I don’t know when that will stop.”

Steve and Natalie have been together for 28 years. They’ve lived in a big, Georgian-style home in an upscale neighbourhood for more than two decades. All five of their children were raised here.

As the couple relaxes in the living room with their two dogs, Natalie sips a glass of red wine and shakes her head. She’s recalling that public meeting in February when Steve stood up and told their story.

“I was vibrating, furious,” says Natalie. “I was reliving it, and that was four years ago, and it makes no sense to me that there has been no progression. They’ve seen this wave of horrible drugs coming across the country, but [they’re] so unprepared and caught off guard.”

For months, the federal government has acknowledged an opioid crisis.

The prime concern now is fentanyl. The effect of a single pill, joint or injection laced with the powerful drug can be 100 times more powerful than morphine.

The Codys want everyone to know that these dangerous narcotics aren’t exclusive to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or the dark alleys and drug dens of Canada’s largest cities. They’re also ravaging the quiet suburbs that ring the urban cores, neighbourhoods like theirs.

Some teens are going out looking for the drugs, but others take them accidentally, sometimes in lethal doses.

In Ottawa, teachers, taxi drivers and parents are now picking up free naloxone kits at pharmacies, just in case they need the life-saving fentanyl antidote.

Still, the horror stories persist.

The recent deaths of two teen girls in Ottawa, both from apparent opioid overdoses, finally sparked action, leading to a series of public meetings — like the one the Codys attended in Kanata.

“I wasn’t going to talk,” says Steve. “When we went through all this, there were just so many doors closed. This is actually still happening?”

It wasn’t the family’s first brush with activism.

Years ago, when the Codys first found out about Nick’s drug problem, they tried to organize their own meetings in an attempt to get their community to face the issue of youth addiction.

It was a message they say their neighbours just didn’t want to hear. Addiction was a problem for bad kids from bad families — not something that happens in affluent suburbs.

Immediately after their son died, the Codys started a foundation called Say No for Nick.

Money raised went straight to Ottawa’s Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, an organization that Steve says offered the family guidance and support through Nick’s addiction.

Raising money in his son’s name is what got them through the funeral and the weeks that followed, Steve says. But it didn’t last.

Steve soon hit a wall and fell into a debilitating depression. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t really do anything at all.

“My body would vibrate with anxiety,” he recalls. “As an entrepreneur, your energy is what makes things happen, right? So you always have balls in the air, you’re always juggling. And when you lose your energy and your capacity to think, those balls drop.”

The Cody family of companies was in trouble.

Tattoo on Darren Cody’s chest, quoting his younger brother.

Steve Cody dropped out of high school in Grade 10 and never went to university, an unusual path for the CEO of an emerging software firm.

He’s always been in business for himself. By the time Nick died, the Codys had built several successful companies, including a window cleaning enterprise, a party supply chain and a heavy equipment rental firm.

After Nick died, it all started to unravel.

“To lose energy, to be in bed basically for nine months and come very close to bankruptcy … We closed the franchises. We had to sell, really, at a fire sale,” Steve says.

To his surprise, an appraiser told him the most valuable part of his enterprise was the integrated software solution he’d had developed to run his businesses.

Software was an entirely new venture, but the idea of starting up something new and being on the cutting edge of something got Steve out of bed.

Steve launched his firm, The Better Software Company. He won spots with two prestigious startup incubators and began rubbing elbows with Canadian technology titans.

He started dreaming big. Really big.

“I’ve sold the dream that we’re going to be a billion-dollar company,” he says.

The software startup is only one of Steve’s responsibilities right now.

Since standing up at that opioid meeting in February, Steve has embarked on a mission to help other families affected by opioid addiction.

Natalie sometimes wonders if they should have tried harder immediately after their son died. But she says they weren’t ready until now.

“Heaven forbid something we could have done four years ago could have prevented just one of these kids from suffering the same fate. It’s hard to live with.”

Together with other families and volunteers, the Codys have formed the advocacy group We The Parents, with Steve as president and Natalie in charge of fundraising.

The group aims to raise awareness and encourage prevention, starting with the shortcomings they see at the Catholic high schools their kids attend.

They’re also lobbying for detox beds for kids, more rehab spaces and real-time overdose statistics in Ottawa.

More than anything, We The Parents wants to support families dealing with addiction right now, to help fill that void Steve ran into years ago when he drove his son all over town, desperate for help.

Already their work is gaining attention, prompting calls from communities across the country looking for help.

Steve has already taken a road trip to a First Nation in Quebec to talk about fentanyl and naloxone. He’s heard from parents from southern Ontario to B.C.

Steve knows he’s in a different place than the parents he’s trying to help.

He’s already been to the brink. Now he’s back, and that’s given him a certain clarity they lack.

“I know how high that sense of urgency is. You have that adrenaline running through you. I don’t have that."

Saving Josh

Steve Cody is driven to save lives, and he’s beginning with Josh Clatney.

Josh is 19, just one year older than Nick was when he died.

Josh is addicted to opioids and has been brought back from the verge of death five times.

He’s finally clean — and wants to stay that way. We The Parents wants to help him and have appointed him to their board.

“He’s representative of who we’re helping, so if he doesn’t show up to a board meeting, because he’s in jail or he’s on another bender, that just reminds us why we’re doing what we’re doing,” says Steve.

Steve sees Josh’s potential to help the cause, and to help save other teens. But he’s painfully aware of the similarities between the young man sitting at the meeting table and the son he lost. He knows he’s risking having his heart broken again.

“We know that’s the potential, that he doesn’t show up and he’s back doing drugs,” says Steve

Steve Cody can’t afford to be tipped off balance right now.

He’s steering his software company toward a billion-dollar valuation, setting up an office in California and managing a staff of 40.

He’s also saving the lives of teens in his community. His job and his mission sometimes conflict.

“I would say, for me, it’s not good for business,” says Steve. “One, I have responsibility to our stakeholders and our employees to make sure our business is successful and thrives. And [my] second [responsibility] is to the community and Nick.”

The son he lost is never far from his mind. Now a new grandson, Sawyer Nicholas Cody, helps the family move on.

Steve Cody is a risk taker, a straight shooter and an entrepreneur used to finding solutions. He’s not used to taking no for an answer when it comes to securing a deal.

But he’s trying to temper his expectations when it comes to saving kids from drugs.

Since he became president of We the Parents, Ottawa has seen many more teens overdose, and at least one die from opioids.

He knows better than most that sometimes the lure of a drug is too much for teens to resist.

“I absolutely know that Nick didn’t want to be a drug addict,” says Steve.

“We know we’re not going to eliminate the drug problem. We’re not going to save everybody. It’s not going to be a drug-free world.”