Marlborough hosts fifth annual overdose awareness vigil

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By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer

Among the parents responding to the poem “We Remember Them” while holding photos of their adult children lost to overdose are (back, l to r) Nancy and Pete Didick, son Peter; (front, l to r) Aileen Lovejoy, son Francis Baillargeon; and Diane Allevato, son Michael.

Marlborough – Families and supporters attended Marlborough’s fifth annual vigil Aug. 28 to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31). Usually held outside the Walker Building, this year’s evening vigil was relocated inside the First Church in Marlborough because the city has been classified as high risk of the mosquito-borne EEE virus.

Volunteers once again created a visual impact the week before by placing purple flags on the Walker Building front lawn, representing the previous year’s number of overdoses statewide to substance use disorder (SUD). The estimated total as of the Aug. 23 flags placement was 2,032, noted event organizer Kathy Leonard. She lost her only child, Jonathan Testa, to a heroin overdose at age 27 in 2014. Leonard urged vigil attendees to view the flags on display.

“Every one of those flags represents a life lost to SUD in the year 2018 in the state of Massachusetts,” she told about 200 attendees. “And every one of those flags represents a family devastated by that loss. Every one of those lives mattered.”

Leonard expressed gratitude to volunteers and the church administration for their response to a two-day notice of the need to change the vigil’s venue. She understands firsthand how grieving families and friends find comfort at the event.

“I know that this event is important to everyone here because you keep returning every year,” she said. “And sadly, there are more of you with us, newly facing a loss. Grief is something that we don’t ever get over. Somehow, together, we learn to get through that grief – and not over it. It certainly changes us forever.”

She also thanked Mayor Arthur Vigeant for offering ongoing support. Leonard chairs the Marlborough Alliance for Prevention.

“The Marlborough Alliance for Prevention has helped to bring updated curriculum, programs and events to children in our school system and community,” she noted. “We have the support of the mayor’s office and city council, police department, school system and chamber of commerce. One of the most important things that we can do is to let people know that SUD does not have to end in death. Recovery is possible.”

Delivering this year’s keynote speech was former New England Patriots defensive lineman Chris Sullivan. He has been in recovery from alcohol and drugs since 2008.

“People in recovery at [12-step program] meetings saved my life – not the people in the stadiums or people I played football with,” he shared. “Never in a million years did I think addiction would affect me. I suffered in silence. I thought weak people asked for help. Recovery found me.”

Among other speakers was Franklin Cook, a peer grief support specialist with Unified Community Solutions. He spoke about losing his father to alcoholism as well as his own recovery from addiction. Cook also announced the soon-to-be-launched organization Support After a Death by Overdose (SADOD.org) with the mission to make peer support readily available.

Locally, Leonard facilitates a grief support group for families and friends coping with the loss of a loved one to SUD on the second Wednesday of each month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the First Church in Marlborough, 37 High St.

Leonard added, “At this vigil in Marlborough, we will always offer a message of hope and be there not only for those of us who are grieving, but for those who need help and encouragement.”

While the remembrance ceremony traditionally concludes with a candlelight tribute, this year’s attendees adapted to the indoor venue by raising lighted cellphones accompanied by the Bill Withers song “Lean on Me.”

Photos/Ed Karvoski Jr.

Volunteers place purple flags Aug. 23 outside the Walker Building. The flags memorialize the 2,033 lives lost to overdose in Massachusetts in 2018.
Photo/Ed Karvoski Jr.
Holding a lighted cellphone, event organizer Kathy Leonard gets a hug from Franklin Cook, a peer grief support specialist with Unified Community Solutions.
Army Staff Sgt. Jackie Morse, one of the vigil’s speakers, and event organizer Kathy Leonard sing the song “Lean on Me” while holding lighted cellphones.
Former New England Patriots defensive lineman Chris Sullivan displays treasured mementos: his Super Bowl ring and a 12-step program recovery coin.
The vigil concludes with attendees raising their lighted cellphones.