Former New England Patriots player Chris Sullivan to be keynote speaker
By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Marlborough – Like far too many families, Kathy Leonard in 2014 joined a group she had hoped to never be part of – those who have lost a loved one to an opioid addiction. But sadly, her beloved son Jonathan Testa died in December of that year from an overdose.
It was just four months later that Leonard, amidst her grief, knew she had to do something. She first helped to form a support group for families. And then in August 2015, she organized Marlborough’s first International Overdose Awareness Day Candlelight Vigil.
Since then, the event held each year on the lawn of the city’s Frank D. Walker Building, has attracted hundreds of those who have been tragically affected, in one way or another, by the crisis. Some come alone, staring ahead, with only their thoughts. Others huddle with friends and family, holding photos of lost loved ones. Prayers are shared as well as heartfelt vignettes from grief-stricken family members, and commentary from municipal leaders and experts in the field of addiction. A slideshow poignantly features photos of those who have passed away.
Prior to the event, roughly 2,000 small purple flags are planted on the lawn, each representing a person who had died from an opioid overdose in Massachusetts the prior year. At each event’s closure, participants gather around the flags, holding lit candles, as they reflect on the too-many lives lost much too soon.
Leonard is finalizing details for this year’s event, which will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. on the lawn of the Walker Building, 255 Main St. (The rain date is Thursday, Aug. 29.)
The guest speakers this year will be Chris Sullivan, a former professional football player for the New England Patriots, who will share his message of hope, and Franklin Cook, a Peer Grief Support Specialist with Unified Community Solutions.
According to his biography, Sullivan was a successful student and athlete in high school and college, and was drafted by the Patriots in 1996. In his six year NFL career, he played for the Patriots, including their 2001 Super Bowl win, as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He should have been “on top of the world”, his bio states but “instead Chris went from the Super Bowl to fighting for his life and future. He was battling anxiety and an addiction to drugs and alcohol that ended up taking over his life and was one of the main reasons he retired from the NFL.”
Fortunately, Sullivan received treatment and now is passionate about sharing his story as a way to educate on the dangers of alcohol and drugs as well as inspiring that there is hope.
“He also lets [others] know that it is the strong people, not the weak, that reach out and asks for help when they need it,” his bio states.
Cook, who is from Watertown, began his career in peer grief support 20 years ago as a volunteer and now manages a statewide project to help people whose loved one has died due to substance use. The project — SADOD, which stands for Support After a Death by Overdose — just got under way in July.
This year, Leonard said, 2,033 purple flags will be placed on the Walker Building’s lawn prior to the Aug. 28 vigil.
“It’s down a bit from last year,” she said, “but still way too many.”
For more information on this year’s event contact Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org.