One of my first assignments at Mercer Council was the 2nd Annual International Overdose event, held last year in Hamilton. I received all of the registration calls, and with those calls, came stories of questioning, heartbreak, and hope. I heard stories of sons and daughters taken too soon; of a young father leaving behind 2 and 4-year-old sons; a young girl experimenting for the first and last time, and some families who were hoping to never see their loved one overdose, but were worried and wanted support.
This year, the township of Robbinsville hosted this event, and they took care of the registration. I was disconnected from some of the stories, but they still made their way to me. A son of a businessman gone, leaving his father to fight to educate others so they would never experience a loss like he did; a talented artist who, after his own recovery journey, is fighting to keep his daughter alive through her addictions, and many more. On Tuesday, August 28th at this year’s event, Mark Manning, father of the late Christopher Manning, spoke about being part of “a club no one ever wants to be a part of”- the club of parents and family members left behind when their loved one dies of an overdose.
Director Pedro Medina of the Trenton Police Department touched everyone in the audience with his perspective- both as part of the law enforcement community, and as a part of the “club”. Director Medina spoke personally about the loss of his son and the impact on his life and family that this loss caused. His son’s addiction started by using legally prescribed pain medication after a surgery. This led to finding street drugs to feed his addiction, which eventually took his life- and breaking the hearts of those he left behind. Adrienne Petta, a recovery warrior, and now Certified Peer Recovery Specialist spoke about her journey to recovery and her efforts to help others onto this path.
In addition to this year’s personal speakers, this event brought many powerful and influential policymakers and law enforcers. Among the speakers were Congressman Chris Smith, the Prosecutor of Mercer County, Angelo Onofri, the Mayor of Robbinsville Dave Fried, NJ Senator Linda Greenstein, and Robbinsville Police Chief Chris Nitti. These speakers discussed what their role is in combatting substance abuse in the community- whether making laws to prevent the spread of dangerous substances or assisting those that have patterns of drug misuse find treatment instead of going straight to criminal proceedings.
In regards to helping stop the flow of people with addiction to prison, Chief Nitti stated that we can no longer “arrest our way out of this epidemic”. Mayor Fried went into greater detail, describing the CARES program that began in Robbinsville, and now is available in all municipalities of Mercer County. This program offers alternatives to arrest through treatment and recovery.
After the speakers, the group lit candles and followed a path lit by luminaries to a circle of remembrance. Here loved ones could share their stories and remember those they love and lost. Family members, friends, and loved ones entered the circle of luminaries and expressed their experiences and feelings, while others reflected on the many emotions evoked by this evening. The vigil ended with singing Amazing Grace.
This event was informative, moving and motivating. While the observation of International Overdose Awareness day offers hope, healing and encouragement, one of the most important things brought forward at this event is that those who have died from overdose were so much more than their death: these were children, husbands, and wives, who had talents, relationships, passions and experiences before their death was defined by overdose. Events like these can only remind all of us of the individuals who are struggling with the disease of addiction, and help shatter the stigmas that are often placed on them.
The official International Overdose Awareness day is August 31st. Mercer Council, the Prevention Coalition of Mercer County and the Prosecutor’s office have sponsored 3 annual observances under the One Voice Initiative. These observances are held during the last week of August and will be in different municipalities every year. This event includes many vendors in the addiction services and related fields that offer information and services to attendees.
New Jersey Strong released a video on our event-
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