County vigil recalls those lost to substance abuse

Annual event takes place at Timber Creek Park's Remembrance and Hope Memorial

The Remembrance and Hope Memorial in Timber Creek Park is dedicated to addiction victims and their families. This year’s vigil there on Aug. 31 drew more than 500 people.

To honor those who struggle with substance-abuse issues and have lost their lives to overdose, the Camden County Government commissioners and the Addiction Awareness Task Force marked Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31 with the annual Remembrance and Hope Memorial Vigil.

The county event at the Remembrance and Hope Memorial in Timber Creek park is an opportunity for people to come together with the community, to remind them they are not alone in their addiction loss. It was attended by more than 500 people who were invited to walk around and see updates to the memorial.

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Families met with loved ones holding hands, sharing prayers, shedding tears and comforting one another as they shared stories about loved ones lost to substance abuse.

A theme of the vigil was encouragement for those who feel guilty for the role they played in those losses. Speakers reminded attendees that addiction is a disease and encouraged the fight to rid the issue of its stigma.

Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr., liaison to the Addiction Awareness Task force, offered welcoming remarks.

“Although our effort in raising awareness, reducing stigma and expanding treatment, we cannot give up until our loved ones stop dying,” he said. “With addiction being treated like any other disease, we must continue to advocate for lawmakers (and) continue our partnerships with health-care providers to reduce the shame and stigma around this disease.”

Congressman Donald Norcross discussed his efforts and those of others to reject political partisanship when it comes to combatting addiction and reducing opioid use. He serves on a national task force to promote addiction services and health care.

“(The) stigma has been around for many lifetimes …” he recalled. “I was not old enough to realize what was happening to my mom-mom with her (addiction to) alcohol. But i was old enough to understand the pain in my father’s eyes …

“There is always that enabling (internal) discussion – ‘Am I helping them? Am I hurting them? – that we all have to go to …” Norcross added. “(Recently) I had the opportunity to have a discussion in Hawaii, and sometimes we think addiction is only an issue on this side of our world. Unfortunately it is not.

“That pain caused by addiction is one that will never go away.”

Two memorable speeches at the vigil came from keynote speaker Zac Clark and John Tomlinson. Clark shared his personal story of addiction as someone who grew up in Haddonfield and was sometimes forced to spend nights on the streets of Camden to feed that addiction. He celebrated 12 years sober last week.

Keynote Speaker Zac Clark, a Haddonfield Native, shared his story of alcohol and opioid addiction. Clark celebrated 12 years sober on August 30.

Tomlinson recalled overcoming his alcohol addiction and losing his brother along the way from a fatal overdose. He said his driving force to get sober was to be a role model for his children.

“I speak with a lot of parents in my work, and for the past 11 years, I always try to tell parents they did nothing wrong,” he pointed out. “They carry that grief and shame and it’s not ok. I try and let them know that I was a loved kid. If love could have gotten me sober, I would have been sober at 12 years old.”

Clark, who is the CEO of Release Recovery in New York City, said his battle with addiction began after he was introduced to opioids following the removal of a brain tumor. Fast forward years later, and he was on the streets of Camden, alone, recently divorced and on a mission to end his life had his guardian angel at PNC bank not appeared.

“I had just been arrested for a DUI, broke into my dad’s office in Cherry Hill and stole a check to go buy more heroin,” he shared at the vigil. “I was hanging out with some guys who were dealing drugs and I went into a PNC bank … The teller had three options: one, call the cops, two, give me the money – and I probably would have been dead within a week – or three, do what she did, flag the check by calling my dad.

“The bank teller, who is here tonight, is Ronda Jackson. And she saved my life.”

Clark finished his speech by saying in the 12 years he’s been sober, he has never had the urge to drink or do drugs.

“I know this life, my life, is so much better,” add Clark, who appeared in 2020 on TV’s “Bachelorette,” where he told his story and got support from millions of “Bachelor Nation” fans. That he laughed about as he got cheers from the vigil audience.

Cherry Hill native Tomlinson remembered returning from boarding school and seeing his younger brother using marijuana, but didn’t want to violate a brotherly bond by reporting what he saw.

“i couldn’t believe it, so but when I came back but I saw my brother smoking pot…I shortly was introduced to alcohol as well, and I was off to the races with that,” he explained. “It took sports away from me, I quit wrestling and my coach told me I was going to regret it. Sure enough, they (his team) won the state championship that same year.

“I was introduced to AA at age 19 after a DUI, relapsed at 26, went back and went through a divorce,” Tomlinson added. “I had my daughter at the time, who turned 21 this year, and God willing, I’ll be 21 years sober next month.”

Tomlinson said his drive to be sober involved his daughter and brother.

“After I was sober, all I wanted was to get my younger brother sober …” he told the vigil audience. “He had his baby son Dominic, who was really his whole world, and I had the idea of opening a sober house. He had nowhere to live at the time, and I told him, ‘Why don’t you come live here? We can help other guys get sober through a program.'”

He showed improvement, but moved out of the house and began hanging out with his ‘old crew,'” Tomlinson recounted.

“Unfortunately, my brother met up with the crowd who liked to party a lot, went to a party and took something that ultimately took his life …” he added. “He was amazingly loyal and it was truly devastating to our family.”

Tomlinson has four children of his own and has taken his brother’s son in, like he do would for his own.

The vigil ended with a video and musical montage of those lost to overdose and addiction. The Clark and Tomlinson speeches and the event presentation are available on the county website.

The county also sends out applications each year offering residents the chance to purchase memorial pavers at Timber Creek Park, places for reflection for families who have lost a loved one.

While Aug. 1 was the final day for a 2023 paver submission, applications will reopen this month for 2024.

A link to additional photos and visual recordings from the 2023 Vigil can be found below:

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