Advocate gears up for Overdose Awareness Day vigil in Marlborough

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By Dakota Antelman, Justin Roshak

A Marlborough police officer watches over the field of purple flags that adorned the Walker Building in 2017 during a previous overdose awareness vigil. (Photo by/Dakota Antelman)

MARLBOROUGH – Area advocates and public health officials will soon recognize and memorialize the lives of those lost to substance use disorder and overdose. 

Part of International Overdose Awareness Day, displays of memorial flags are set to crop up outside Hudson, Town Hall and the Walker Building in Marlborough. In Marlborough, where organizer Kathy Leonard is planning a companion vigil alongside the flags, this opportunity is a welcome one after COVID-19 forced the vigil’s cancellation last year.

“I’m just happy to be able to be doing it again,” Leonard said in a recent interview. “I hope the weather holds out.”

Leonard is a prominent advocate speaking out on the topic of substance use disorder. She regularly works with municipal officials in Hudson and Marlborough on efforts to raise awareness about addiction and also leads a grief support group for the families of loved ones who died due to substance use disorder.

Leonard lost her own son, Jonathan Testa, to a fatal overdose in 2014. 

Nearly, seven years later, after seeing a record number of overdose deaths concurrent with the COVID-19 pandemic, Leonard said the issue is as relevant as ever.

“It was difficult to find treatment for someone who was struggling with substance use disorder before the pandemic,” she noted. “But now a lot of places either closed down or they didn’t let anyone new in. So there was just no place to turn to for help.”

“I feel like any of the progress that we were making kind of got swept under the rug and now we have to start all over again,” she continued.

With deaths continuing to shatter communities and families, Leonard sees the COVID-19 response as a display of society’s capability to contend with the addiction crisis. 

“People will say that the pandemic was worse,” she said. “And indeed it was. But, when I see how we brought together people and communities and resources to do things in a hurry, it just shows me that we do have the capability to give a lot more attention to the things that maybe didn’t get the attention they should have because of the stigma that still exists.” 

Leonard expects to set up her flags later this month, placing one flag for each of the 2,104 individuals lost to a drug overdose last year according to current state data. 

She will then host a vigil on the evening of Aug. 31. 

If she is able to go forward with the event in its primary outdoor location at the Walker Building gazebo, 2021 will break a trend that saw the vigil cancelled last year and moved indoors the year before due to rain and the EEE threat. 

Regardless of location, Leonard is excited to feature Michael Blanchard as her event’s keynote speaker. 

Based in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Blanchard is an inspirational photographer who is in recovery from his own battle with addiction. 

He has written a number of books about his recovery journey and the role photography has played in that recovery.