Community gathers to remember loved ones lost to addiction

Annual township vigil also provides help to families

Family and friends of individuals who lost their battle with drug addiction gathered at the township’s James G. Atkinson Park on Aug 27 for the 5th annual Overdose Awareness Vigil.

“Some years ago, when I got started as a freeholder, some parts of our county faced a heroin problem that was three to four times the national average,” said Freeholder Jim Jefferson, liaison to the Division of Human and Disability Services. “We were really overtaken and we wanted to give people comfort in their time of hurting, and this night does that.”

Gloucester County has recorded 86 overdose deaths this year, with 15 in the past three months. 

“We want them to remember their loved ones as the person that they were to them,” Jefferson said. “Hopefully, in their memory, we can spur into action and help as many people as we can.”

The annual vigil gives the community a chance to meet with representatives of drug-addiction programs in the area, including My Friend’s House and Helping Hand Behavioral Health. Vendors set up tables with information for both addicts and their loved ones.

Last year, the county also started a Hand Out Narcan program with Gloucester County EMS that provides addicts with a dose of the narcotic to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. 

“At last year’s vigil, I had a family member come to me … They said, ‘I buried one child, but I was able to save my second child with the recovery kit you gave us,’” Jefferson recalled. 

“I will never forget that as long as I live.” 

Washington Township has started two new programs for residents who may be struggling with addiction. Straight to Treatment started on Aug 24 and allows addicts to walk into the police station and ask for assistance. They then have the opportunity to sit down with a representative from My Friend’s House and talk about available services.

The other township program is ‘Road to Recovery. It allows people who have been charged by the municipality with crimes that are often a sign of addiction, including shoplifting, the chance to have those charges dropped if they opt for addiction treatment.

“We are always going to do what we can to make sure people know help is available,” Jefferson noted. “Putting help out in the community and allowing people to have access to it is what the night (vigil) is all about.”

Attendees at the vigil gathered with small, battery-operated candles as they listened to the kind words shared by Jefferson and a story they could relate to from Pastor Matt Pilla, of Keystone Fellowship Church in the township.

“This year, I have conducted three funerals for those who were close to me and have overdosed, one of them being the best man from my wedding,” Pilla said.

Sixty-one names were read at the vigil and pictures of victims were shown on a screen for their loved ones to see. The vigil ended with a rendition of  “You Raise Me Up,” as attendees raised their candles to the sky.