Stories of addiction, perseverance shared at first annual Addiction Awareness Vigil

The event aimed to raise awareness and break the stigma of addicts battling the opioid epidemic

Members of the community, municipality, Washington Township Municipal Alliance and recovering addicts are pictured on the donated Remembrance Bench at the vigil.

In the past two years, Kennedy University Hospital in Washington Township has administered more than 3,000 shots of Narcan to patients experiencing a drug overdose, averaging one dose of Narcan every five hours, according to emergency department doctor Jim Baird. With the purpose of breaking the stigma of addiction, raising awareness and remembering those lost from drug abuse, Baird and many others shared their stories at the first Addiction Awareness and Remembrance Vigil last week at Washington Township High School.

‘I would have done anything for my next fix.’

Washington Township native Lindsay Parker began experimenting with drugs when she was 16 years old. What started as an addiction to Percocet, turned into oxycodone, which led to methadone and eventually heroin, a drug that also took the life of her brother Shane.

“Addiction to heroin led to homelessness, more institutions and hopelessness,” Parker said. “I can honestly say during that time I did not care whether I lived or died. I would have done anything for my next fix.”

Parker found herself in a beachside community rehab, which led to an Oxford House on the shore. Unfortunately, she said, programs such as these do not exist in Washington Township, and maybe if they did, her story and the story of others would have different endings.

Parker found out she was pregnant with her daughter while in a full-fledged addiction to heroin. While her daughter was in the NICU, Parker was arrested for possession in Atlantic City, she said.

“When you’re in the midst of addiction, the drug is the only thing with power and control,” Parker said. “My disease took control and I felt like I had lost both of my children and I gave up. I thought I was nothing better than the stereotypical junkie.”

While Parker tried to find a local hospital or facility to detox, she was forced into a psych ward where she felt “spiritually, mentally and physically beaten.” It was then Parker surrendered and was willing to regain her sobriety. She reconnected with her network on the shore, called her sponsor and began the program she lives by to this day. Parker recently celebrated one year of sobriety.

“I put up one hell of a fight, and now I am fortunate enough today to say I have my children back, I’m engaged to be married to my best friend, I have a full time job, a home of my own and also a drivers license,” Parker said. “Recovery is possible. People can change. We need to break the stigmas and change the way we see addicts. I am a daughter, I am a sister, I am an aunt, a mother and I am a recovering addict.”

Hurffville Elementary Students performed an original song, written and arranged by teacher Eileen Lucarini, highlighting community service and caring.

‘Eighty people are lost to opiate addiction each year in Gloucester County’

The event aimed to raise awareness for addiction and shed light on the fact addiction has no boundaries, it does not discriminate and there is help available.

Members of the Washington Township Municipal Alliance and administration presented a remembrance bench, donated to honor and remember those in the community who have been lost to addiction. The bench will be located in the Washington Lake Park.

Students of Hurffville Elementary School, under the advisement of music teacher Nancy Leong, performed an original song, written and arranged by teacher Eileen Lucarini, “It’s Up to You, It’s Up to Me,” highlighting the importance of service and community. Additional music pieces were sung by members of the Washington Township High School Choir, along with Gloucester County Institute of Technology student Amanda Peacock.

A variety of resource tables were available for attendees to browse and learn about the programs and facilities available for families and community members. At the end of the evening, a candlelight vigil was held with lanterns created by students on the annual Senior Service Day to remember community members who have passed. Participants were able to provide a photograph of their loved one, placed on the stage for all to pay their respects.

Resident Harry Smith placed a photograph of his son Dylan at the front of the auditorium during the candlelight vigil, having celebrated what would have been his 26th birthday a few days prior.

“For a lot of parents, it used to be hard love — kick them out and let them get it — but you can’t, you can’t give up,” Smith said. “We can’t fix our kids, we can’t make our kids better, but you can keep trying; never stop trying. I stopped on the day my son died.”

According to Prosecutor Sean Dalton, approximately 80 people are lost to opiate addiction each year in Gloucester County. Police Chief Patrick Gurcsik said when he began his career 25 years ago, a call for an unconscious person in a motor vehicle was often assumed to be a drunk driver.

“Now, it’s a daily occurrence and always a drug overdose,” Gurcsik said.

Programs are available for those struggling with addiction, such as recovery coaches who link individuals with trained mentors, through City of Angels, who assist the addict in seeking treatment and emotional support. Dalton said more than 200 people in Gloucester County have been connected with a recovery coach during the recent years.

Michelle Perez, City of Angels and recovery advocate, said the way communities view and speak of addicts needs to change.

“People in recovery, you appreciate things more; you work harder because you feel like you have to prove it. Why do we have to prove that we are worthy?” Perez said. “When people are called a waste of space, a junkie or a loser, are they really feeling comfortable to go ask for help?”

Photographs of community members and loved ones lost to the opioid epidemic were placed along the edge of the auditorium stage during a candlelight vigil to be honored and remembered.

‘Fathers of two don’t go to rehab’

This March, Mike Campeggio, a Washington Township High School 1997 graduate, celebrated three years of continuous sobriety after years of battling addiction to prescription painkillers and opiates, an experience that left the then-husband and father of two confused and alone.

“I didn’t know about rehab — junkies went to rehab, fathers of two don’t go to rehab,” Campeggio said. “It wasn’t talked about, and that’s why I’m here today.”

Today, Campeggio is a father of three and said his life “has never been better.”

“Being an addict, a recovering addict, there’s no finish line for us,” Campeggio said. “That three years can be gone tomorrow. I can make one bad decision and my life, as I know it, can be over. I have to remember that every day.”

Class of 2008 graduate Amanda Vacca shared the story of her journey through addiction, one that left her in a car accident with seven of her friends, one who passed from the crash, in 2009. Vacca sustained a brain injury, and vowed to turn her life around, however the hold addiction had on her was too strong and she returned to drinking and using drugs.

Vacca said at the vigil she felt embarrassed wherever she went in town, reminded of the accident but not knowing any way to cope other than using.

“Drugs and alcohol brought me to such a place where I was broken, my world was dark and I wanted to die,” Vacca said. “But I had a second chance at life, and how dare I take that for granted.”

Vacca attended a rehab program in Florida six years ago, followed by a move into a halfway house. It was then she realized she needed to do more. At this time, Vacca lives in South Philadelphia, runs a recovery house and just celebrated five years of sobriety in January.

“There is hope, there is life after drugs, but you have to put the work in,” Vacca said. “Every day I wake up and think, ‘what am I doing? Who am I helping? What am I doing to make a difference?’”

Raise awareness, break the stigma and ‘never give up’

The themes of persistence, hope and community were shared through many additional speakers and their stories, including event organizer Julie Yankanich, Mayor Joann Gattinelli, Councilwoman Angela Donato, Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf, Municipal Alliance member Brooke Parker and Gloucester County Freeholder Dan Christy. All pledged to stand together with their communities to fight the epidemic, raise awareness and change the stigma on those who are experiencing addiction, or loss.

“We will never give up, we will never lose hope and we will never leave anyone behind,” Dalton said. “We will continue to fight this disease each and every day.”

Resources and hotlines

  • NJ Addiction Services 24/7 Hotline: 1–844–276–2777
  • NJ Addiction Resources Hotline: 1–844-REACH-NJ, or visit www.reachnj.gov
  • Gloucester County Office of Addiction Services: (856) 384–6886
  • NJ Hopeline — 24/7 Peer Support: 1–855–654–6735
  • NJ Connect For Recovery: (855) 652–3737

For more resources and services within Gloucester County and the state, visit the ‘Addiction Services’ page at www.gloucestercountynj.gov.