By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Marlborough resident Kathy Leonard has mixed feelings about the growth of the annual International Overdose Awareness vigil she helps to organize in the city.
This year’s event, scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. in front of the Walker Building, will be Leonard’s third vigil. It will also be the third year she has filled the building’s lawn with small purple flags, each one representing an overdose death in Massachusetts in the previous year. She is confident that this third event will be her biggest yet.
She is expecting more attendees than ever before. She is also, however, laying more memorial flags than ever before — 2,069.
“That makes me sad because I hoped to see that number go down,” she said. “I think it will because we’re doing a lot. Massachusetts is pretty progressive as far as what we do. That’s good news. But the bad news is we still have people dying.”
Leonard, who started the event in 2015 after she lost her 27-year-old son Jonathan Testa to an overdose in December 2014, will be one of many speakers at this year’s vigil. In promoting the event, however, she notes that it also will be featuring special guests Jim Wahlberg and Sully Erna of the band Godsmack.
Wahlberg has worked with local parents of overdose victims in the past and has advocated for overdose awareness through his short film “If Only” and a number of other projects. Erna will be performing his new song “Different Kind of Tears” which he wrote about drug addiction.
The two, Leonard expects, will draw large crowds to the vigil. As it grows, however, Leonard notes that she does not want to lose track of the vigil’s primary purpose.
“The vigil is about the lives we’ve lost and what we can do to act,” she said. “And I want to offer a bit of hope too because there is a lot of help out there and I think that if we can get rid of that stigma, people will feel better about reaching out for help.”
As she herself came to grips with the extent of the drug epidemic, Leonard found that clustering the flags in one place and hosting speakers was a way to combine her message of hope with her goal to open the eyes of local residents to the severity of the epidemic.
“I started looking at statistics and thinking ‘people don’t know,’” she said. “Unless you’ve gone through it, you don’t know. You’re not paying attention to it. So you don’t know how bad it is.”
Over the years, community members have turned out by the dozens to hear Leonard’s message. She remembers telling the city that she expected between 30 and 40 people to attend that first event in 2015. In reality, she estimates between 250 and 300 people attended. Last year, the vigil grew again, with between 350 and 400 attending.
The vigil’s impact, however, extends beyond the crowd that gathers on the night it is held. Leonard always plants her flags days before the vigil, allowing passersby to interact with them for several days, rather than just one night.
Leonard said she personally visits the flags after work almost every day that they are up. As she does, she often overhears others viewing them and reacting.
“Some of them know what they’re there for but some of them don’t,” she said of the people who see the flags. “I’ll hear them asking ‘What does this mean’ and then they’ll read the sign and go ‘No way. There’s that many people dying?’”
Leonard fears that, even as the drug epidemic gains mainstream media attention, many people don’t understand the dangers it poses. Likewise, she worries that the families and friends of addicts are not aware of the existing support structures for them and their loved ones.
As she approaches her third vigil, Leonard hopes her event has and will continue to help sustain a conversation about drug abuse that addresses those concerns.
“Step one in coming up with a solution is understanding the problem; you have to understand the problem. I think a lot of people have their heads buried in the sand or they don’t want to admit it,” she said, later adding, “The first step is recognizing the problem. Then we figure out what we can do about it.”
The Walker Building is located at 255 Main St. In case of rain, the vigil will be held at the First Church in Marlborough, Parish Hall, 37 High St.
For more information call Leonard at 508-460-2002 or email [email protected].