BERNARDSVILLE – Posters featuring pictures of 14 area residents who lost their lives from drug abuse currently grace the front lawn of the Old Bernardsville Library building on Route 202.
Meanwhile at night, the building, an historic borough landmark that dates back to Colonial times, is completely covered in purple light.
The distinctive images will remain in place throughout September, National Recovery Month, as a visual reminder of the ongoing opioid epidemic that plagues the nation.
While the coronavirus has dominated the news this year, Community In Crisis (CIC), the non-profit organization that now occupies the old library, wants residents to know that the drug epidemic hasn’t gone away – and in fact, has been further complicated by the isolation, restrictions and mental health challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our minds are so understandably focused on the Coronavirus pandemic and how it can affect any one of us,’’ said Basking Ridge resident Andi Williams, executive director of CIC. “Well, honestly, the same should be true for the opioid pandemic but we rarely talk about how many people – most of them very young and in their prime of life – are dying from overdoses, too.
“It’s the stigma, the shame, the not-my-kid attitudes that stop us all from accepting that addiction can happen to you, me, anyone,’’ she added. “If we owned that more, we’d be more ready to seek the help and resources that we need to get through what is a horrible disease and, year over year, the number one national public health crisis.’’
According to CIC, Somerset County has already had 38 overdose deaths this year compared to 24 fatalities at the same time in 2019.
On Monday night, Aug. 31, CIC held a vigil at its headquarters to mark the 20th annual International Overdose Awareness Day. Parents, families, community leaders and clergy gathered to help spread awareness of the epidemic and to share the message that overdose death is preventable.
“In small towns and big cities, the global village comes together to remember those who have lost their battle to substance use disorder,’’ CIC said in a press release about the event. “It is a reminder that every life is precious, every life has meaning and that every loss is felt and recognized. It is also an opportunity to redouble our efforts to reach out to those who still suffer.’’
As part of the vigil, local Girl Scouts and middle school volunteers helped erect the remembrance posters and tied purple ribbons on trees throughout the community.
The color purple was selected for recovery because it represents healing, according to Ken Musgrove, director of recovery support at CIC.
Musgrove told those attending the vigil that 450,000 lives have been lost in the U. S. since the first Overdose Awareness Day in 2001.
“More important than the numbers was the fact that each number represented a human life that is no longer with us and we are poorer because of their passing,” he said.
Also speaking was Dina Aurichio, a mother from Branchburg Township whose son, Dillon, lost his life on his 24th birthday.
“I’m angry today. I’m hurt that we have these signs – there are far too many,’’ she said. “And I’m never going to be OK with it. I know everyone of these people on these signs would have chosen for this not to happen to them. I’m here to remember them and to celebrate their lives and remember that each person that dies of an overdose, their lives mattered and will always matter.’’
Aurichio and another parent lead a support group for parents who have lost children to substance abuse at 7 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month here.
Also speaking at the vigil was Anthony Justo, a Morristown resident in long-term recovery who suffered the loss several loved ones, including his mother who died of an overdose in 2019.
“I got sober on Oct 9, 2013 – this is and always will be the great miracle in my life,’’ he said. “Tonight, I started thinking about my own personal story and the bondage of addiction, and some of the journey of recovery that I have experienced over the past seven years.
“For me it started when I was about 9. I witnessed what was to be the first overdose of many of my mother,’’ he said. “Some years later I would be arrested due to circumstances surrounding my addiction, and I got sober with the help of Morris County Correctional Facility, Morris County Drug Court, and a large community that showed me unconditional and radical love.’’
Mayor Mary Jane Canose was also on hand and offered thanks to CIC for the work it does in the community.
Musgrove closed the event by stressing the importance of prevention, through safe medication disposal and the availability of Narcan. “Community will be the cure for both this epidemic and the greater pandemic,’’ he said.
As participants left they were offered a purple bulb and asked to light their own homes to remember those who died, and to keep them lit through the month of September.
Williams said Overdose Awareness Day and Recovery Month “help us refocus, and that’s what we are trying to do right in front of you in Bernardsville.’’
“The coronavirus epidemic is making it so hard for people to find comfort and connection during this isolation – relapse and overdose rates are at an all-time high,’’ she said. “It’s time we all understood that it’s as prevalent and as random as other diseases such as cancer and diabetes, and to feel comfortable seeking help and information without judgement or shame.’’
For more information, visit https://communityincrisis.org/.