By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Marlborough – As the evening rains held off on a humid and overcast night, hundreds of people of all ages gathered for a solemn candlelight vigil Aug. 31 in front of the Walker Building on Main Street to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day.
As the program’s guest speakers addressed the audience, a field of 1,531 small purple flags – one for each person who died of a drug overdose in Massachusetts in 2015 – fluttered in the breeze next to the gathering.
The event was organized for the second year in a row by Kathy Leonard, whose son Jonathan Testa died of a heroin overdose in December 2014.
As Leonard spoke, she noted that although her son, who was her only child, had passed, she was “…still a mom. It’s the most important role I’ll ever have.”
As such, she stressed, she was committed to working towards helping other families and reducing the stigma and shame associated with the disease of substance use disorder.
She noted that there were 1,256 flags at the first vigil held in 2015 and 1,531 this year.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “Each of those flags represents a life – someone’s child, son, daughter, mother, or father. These were good people – this disease doesn’t define them.”
Leonard said everyone could do something in the fight against addiction.
“Start with small things. Be kind and don’t judge people,” she said. “Be part of the education and awareness. Learn the warning signs and risks. Attend events. Make donations.”
Leonard’s brother, Mark, who is the Marlborough Police Chief, also addressed the audience. In doing so, he too emphasized the need to increase awareness and “erase the stigma.” Law enforcement in the city was committed to working towards that goal, he said.
“We know we cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “We need to educate and increase awareness. We need to work with those who prescribe [opioids.]”
The department has joined the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (P.A.A.R.I.), Leonard said, which supports local police departments as they work with opioid addicts.
“We will continue to fight in memory of those lost,” he added.
Also speaking at the event was Jim Wahlberg, executive director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation.
Wahlberg recently co-wrote and co-produced the film “If Only,” which was created as a way to start a conversation between parents and teens about the dangers of prescription drug misuse and abuse. The 38-minute movie, which was filmed in Tewksbury, features many of those who were in attendance at the Aug. 31 vigil. The family members appear at the end, holding photos and placards with the names of their loved ones who died of an overdose.
“Because of you the stigma has been erased a bit,” he said to the audience.
Wahlberg had praise for Gov. Charlie Baker who said had gotten the state “moving in the right direction.”
But it was the “moms and dads” who also deserved much credit, he noted, as they pushed officials for more funds for treatments.
“We need more treatment facilities, treatment works,” he stressed. “We need safe places with smart people.”
As the vigil came to close, candles were passed around, and those gathered were invited to surround the field of flags. After Reverend Kazimierz Bem of the First Church in Marlborough offered a prayer, the audience joined Kathy Leonard and Wahlberg in a recitation of the “Serenity Prayer.”