By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Hudson/Marlborough – More than 600 residents, community leaders, state officials and family members of those who have died from drug overdoses gathered at Grace Baptist Church in Hudson April 6 to address the opioid epidemic.
The event featured the screening of the short film “If Only,” filmed in Tewksbury and produced by James Wahlberg, executive director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation. Wahlberg was present to introduce the film.
“The movie was made to start a dialogue,” he told the gathering.
He spoke about the final scene of the film, at a funeral, which featured local residents who have lost family members to addiction. At the end of the film, they are shown one by one holding photos of the loved ones who died.
During the filming of that scene, Wahlberg recalled, “I realized everyone in the room had been to a similar funeral for a loved one.” But not one of them balked at being part of the emotional scene, he noted, because they wanted to help prevent what happened to them from happening to others.
“I met some amazing people on this journey bound together through their pain,” Wahlberg said. “They have gone into the world to make a difference.”
Some of those who appeared in the film were present at the screening. Many shed tears as they were asked by event organizer Cheryl Juaire to stand and hold up their photos to the rest of the audience. They received a standing ovation.
The film, Wahlberg said, was “made because of people like you – those that paid the ultimate price.”
A panel discussion followed the screening, with State Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow, who oversees the Joint Committee on Public Health; Hudson Chief of Police Michael D. Burks Sr.; Hudson Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jodi Fortuna; Sam Wong, a member of the Hudson Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition; Kathy Leonard, who co-founded a local chapter of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing) following the death of her son and is a member of the Marlborough Substance Use Prevention Coalition; and Mike Duggan, founder of Wicked Sober and co-founder of Healing Hills Village Addiction Treatment and Recovery, LLC.
Also on the panel was Cheryl Juaire’s husband, Peter Juaire, a recovering alcoholic and councilor-at-large in Marlborough, and her son, Sean Merrill, a recovering addict and executive assistant/community relations liaison for Teen Challenge, a faith-based recovery program. Cheryl lost her other son Corey to overdose in 2011.
Panel members spoke about the signs of addiction, recovery options, and what is being done at the state and local level to address the rising number of deaths due to opioid abuse. According to the Massachusetts Department of Health, the number of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts in 2012 was 668. There was a sharp increase in 2013 to 911, and then another large leap in 2014 to 1,256.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Burks said. “We need to treat addicts with understanding and compassion.”
Also helpful, he said, are police partnerships with schools and tougher penalties for drug dealers.
Hogan encouraged all in attendance to keep fighting for legislative changes.
“We will continue to formulate and put forward bills,” she said. “Your stories…that helps us formulate good and effective public policy.”
Before and after the film and panel discussion, representatives from more than 20 addiction resource organizations manned booths to provide information about preventing addiction and local recovery programs.
Marc Pena, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and emcee, called the event “historic” and said he hopes it becomes a model for other towns.
“This issue affects everyone,” he said. “This is one more step to destigmatizing addiction in our cities and towns.”
Addressing the crowded room, he asked the audience to take a look around: “This is what it looks like when a community comes together.”
To view a preview of “If Only” from the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, visit
www.markwahlbergyouthfoundation.com/if-only/. To view the full-length feature, visit
For help finding local resources, visit www.hudsonhealthdept.org/coalition.