When Frank Illiano realized that drug addiction was threatening his employees’ lives, he decided to do something to address one of the most difficult problems to talk about in Mount Airy and beyond.
Three years ago, he started the Illiano Project and on Friday, he was honored with the William Donald Schaefer award by Comptroller Peter Franchot.
The Illiano Project offers support for those in recovery, including meetings, Narcan training and helping them find a job, no questions asked.
“I’m proud to say, ‘I know Frank,’” said friend and business partner Chris Beck as he introduced the award Friday.
The phrase is a common refrain around town, he said. Illiano has been in Mount Airy since 1989. He owns businesses including New York J&P Pizza and The Mt. Airy Inn. His family and employees joined elected officials from the town and county for the ceremony.
Illiano said he had known Schaefer and was shocked to learn he won the award. He gave credit to the whole group that works together on the project.
Franchot said the Illiano project was in the spirit of Schaefer, who had a “do it now” attitude and believed in lending a helping hand.
He congratulated Illiano on being a successful businessperson who made his way to the U.S. from Italy and now has a reputation of “supporting local organizations with this time, money and perhaps best of all, his food.”
The opioid crisis “is probably the biggest threat facing our economy,” Franchot said, “because we’re losing our young people.” He said he would suggest to Gov. Larry Hogan and staff that they visit Mount Airy to see the work being done there.
Commissioner Eric Bouchet, R-District 4 said Illiano’s work touched close to home for him after he lost his daughter to addiction.
“I think I'll be forever wounded and all the other parents out there [in the] community right now [who] are wounded as well … my daughter was not disposable. Your children not disposable, and efforts by Mr. Illiano and others like him will allow us to conquer this disease,” he said.
Town Council President Peter Helt recalled the first time he heard the idea for the Illiano project.
“I knew from years of experience that when Frank was going to do something, he was going to get it done,” he said. “And from my perspective, this is what should be done. You're better off without government interference.”
Council member Robert King Jr. said he was familiar with Illiano’s generosity toward local sports programs as a coach and a supporter.
“When he was deciding to put this program together, I was not surprised and Frank doesn't do anything halfway,” King said.
Ranie Brugera leads the Family Support Group on Monday nights as well as Narcan trainings.
“I have people call me at all hours,” she said, whether it is someone looking to get into a rehab program or just looking for support.
She thinks the Illiano Project building at 407 S. Main St. is a good spot in town for the services, and the best way they spread information about what they do is through word of mouth.
Friends and family gave Illiano a standing ovation when he received the award. Food and sweets from J&P were available for the guests and his grandson toddled around, nearly stealing the show from the elected officials.
A few feet from the food table, the Angel Tree was a solemn note during the mostly cheerful ceremony. Ornaments on the tree represent all of those who have died.
“Three years ago we lost three people in one weekend,” Illiano said. “I’ve been here 30 years. It’s a nice town. So nobody in Mount Airy thought we had this problem. Unfortunately we have this problem all over, not just Mount Airy. It’s almost everywhere.”