Like a lot of folks, Zach Arismendez was shy early on, trying to find his way and his place in the Hope is Alive program. And he was just the sweetest, gentlest, most soft-spoken guy—the kind of guy where you wonder how he was ever somebody who had lied or cheated or manipulated people.
He made instant friends, and a lot of times when you’re in community environments like ours, you end up picking up nicknames as a sign of love and respect. We already had a Zach in our program, but he was pretty short, so to differentiate between the two, one became Short Zach and the other became Tall Zach. And, since nicknames often morph and shorten, Tall Zach became TZ.
TZ worked really hard to get to one year of continuous sobriety, a huge milestone in our world that we celebrate with something we call Culture Night. We gather everyone from all the houses in an area on the first Sunday of the month and everyone who’s celebrated a year of sobriety that month gets the opportunity to stand up and speak.
When TZ’s opportunity came, he was excited and nervous, but he channeled all that into a very engaging talk. There was something about it that just stuck… this was a changed man, a man who carried a level of vulnerability and authenticity we don’t always see.
As Ally and I drove home that night, we got a phone call from one of the residents in the home where TZ lived. We immediately knew something was wrong.
“TZ’s not breathing!” he said. “We’re trying CPR but he’s not breathing!”
Instantly my heart dropped.
These are the moments I fear the most.
We rushed to the house to find an ambulance and police cars parked out front. They wouldn’t let us inside as the EMTs worked to save TZ’s life, but it was evident from the very serious mood that something wasn’t right. As soon as they loaded TZ up on the ambulance, I called his parents to let them know what was going on and told them the hospital where they could meet us.
After about an hour at the hospital came the scene I’ll never forget as long as I live. A doctor walking down the hallway toward us, accompanied by the hospital chaplain.
The chaplain never delivers good news.
We would find out later that TZ had an undiagnosed genetic heart defect that caused a random heart attack.
He was clean and sober when he died.
I don’t think any of us was ready to handle the shock, the pain, the grief of that moment. TZ’s parents Dawn and Mike, just wracked with sobs over the loss of their son. Ally and I, raw and hollowed out over the sudden departure of a man we considered a friend. A beautiful light extinguished far, far too early.
Before his life was cut short, TZ had begun to enjoy running. It was a good place for him to be, and it’s impossible for me to think of that and not also automatically think of Hebrews 12:1, which says, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
And then one day, it clicked. A way to honor this young man who passed away clean, sober, and saved: we could hold a 5K fundraiser and call it the “TZ Memorial Sobriety Sprint.”
So we did. And I’ll never forget all the people who showed up to participate. Not just runners who were there to remember TZ, but also so many people who had lost their loved ones. We gave people a way to honor those they’d lost, and it’s since become one of our most meaningful annual events.
The first year, TZ’s family participated. They just walked the course, taking that final stretch hand-in-hand, celebrating TZ, and celebrating the way God often does what he does best: make good come from the toughest of situations. They reminisced about how grateful they were to have that year of sobriety with TZ, grateful to have him back in their lives, and grateful for the new joyous memories they got to form.
To register for this year’s Sobriety Sprint, visit this page. You can also submit, at no cost, the name and photo of a loved one you lost and HIA will honor them during the event.