Around 400 people braved high humid conditions on the Wyoming County Courthouse lawn in Tunkhannock on Thursday evening, but no one seemed to mind as a litany of speakers put a face on a drug crisis which had empowerment overtones for the addicted and their support networks.
The ‘Not One More’ rally suggested that Wyoming County has had enough, and was in part organized by Lizz DeWolfe of Forkston whose son JJ Baker died from an overdose last summer.
Rick Hiduk served as master of ceremonies for the event.
Michael Donahue, who formerly administered the drug and alcohol program of Luzerne and Wyoming counties, noted that Wyoming had 17 overdose deaths in 2014, and he would not be surprised if the number is higher this year.
“Listen folks, all these lives are worth it and we need to start caring for them,” the Mehoopany resident said.
It was a point also sharply made by teens Mason Crawford and Olivia Romano, two Tunkhannock Area High School students who are part of the Breaking Ground Poets, as they read a poem they had written in response to a friend of theirs who had died of a drug overdose.
The poem, which they had shared to a national audience in Washington, D.C., last month dealt with the insanities of drug addiction, and how being an addict can be the loneliest thing in the world. The two received an enthusiastic applause from the audience when they completed their reading.
Bobby Hunt also read a poem, in which he related how the allure and love of money turned him to drugs.
“Money overpowers faith. Money overpowers reason. It almost ruined my life,” he said.
Event organizer DeWolfe shared her tragic story with the crowd - how her son JJ Baker was in a recovery program in Florida when the incident occurred.
She spoke about how the last time she talked to him on Aug. 25, 2015.
“I told him to call me if you need anything. I love you. You know I sleep with my phone.”
The next day, DeWolfe continued, she sent a text message to her son, but received no answer. At that time, DeWolfe said, she received a premonition that something terrible had occurred.
She was proved right, because three days later, authorities found Baker in a car, the victim of a drug overdose.
Several months ago, DeWolfe said, she attended a similar drug awareness rally in Bradford County, which inspired her to organize a similar event for Wyoming County.
DeWolfe also emphasized to the crowd, “Help is there. There is hope. There is recovery. Please let us guide you.”
Wyoming County Commissioner Tom Henry bared his soul about having to be checked into Marworth 30 years ago as his life was spiraling out of control.
“The stigma attached to addiction is no longer allowed here in Wyoming County,” Henry announced to the applause of the crowd.
“The three of us are so delighted that you all showed up here delay,” Henry continued, referring to himself and fellow Wyoming County commissioners Judy Mead and Ron Williams. “We all have hope to share with you. We have hope in Wyoming County and we’re never, never going to forget that.”
Williams also spoke about his bout with addiction, saying that he’s been a recovering alcoholic for the past 30 years.
“There’s hope here for all of you. There’s hope here for everyone if they need it.”
Mead said there is a lot of professional help available in Wyoming County, and urged anyone who needs it to take advantage of it.
Rev. Lou Divis of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Tunkhannock offered a passionate prayer in which she extolled the crowd to say “Not one more.”
“Beloved Creator, keep our children out of the claws of drugs,” Divis prayed. “Instead, bring joy into our hearts.”
Jayne Montieth spoke about how she is a recovering alcoholic and she passed that characteristic on to her son, who became a drug addict.
“Education is the key,” Montieth said. “It’s chemistry, not character.
Montieth recalled how when she was working at the White House during the Reagan administration, the solution to the drug program was “Just say no to drugs.”
“We were naive in those days,” she said. “Addiction has a new face. It’s not the bum with the brown bag and the bottle. It’s not the scum bag shooting heroin.”
Montieth told the crowd how she had attempted several times to get her son into recovery, but he had always assured her he could handle it. Eventually, he died of a drug overdose.
“I don’t want my son’s death to be in vain,” she said. “This is a life or death battle.”
Another tragic story was shared by Marlene Rohe of the Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education task force, who lost her son, Brandon, to a fentanyl overdose.
“This is an epidemic for us,” Rohe said about the drug situation. “There is not a person out there who has not been touched.”
Rohe said her son suffered from depression and attempted to self-medicate the problem. He started on prescription drugs, then turned to heroin, before finally using fentanyl.
Several times her son would go into rehabilitation, and resolve to stay clean after completing it. But it each time he returned to drugs.
“He told me, ‘Don’t worry, Mom, nothing is going to happen to me,’” Rohe said.
Eventually, Brandon was found dead in his bedroom, a victim of a drug overdose.
Rohe said Brandon’s death is a video she plays over and over again in her mind.
“Drug addiction is just a brutal, brutal evil in our lives,” she said.
EMA director Gene Dziak spoke about his experiences as an emergency responder arriving at the scene for people who are drug overdose victims.
Many times, Dziak said, he’s seen people who were unresponsive, not breathing - as well as those already deceased. These people are always in possession of drug paraphernalia - some with needles still in their arms.
One of the hardest things in such circumstances, Dziak continued, is informing the victim’s loved ones that there was nothing they could do.
Dziak said their mission is to get Narcan, a drug that can counteract the effects of an opiate overdose, into the hands of every first responder in the county. For someone suffering from an opiate overdose, administration of Narcan as quickly as possible can mean the difference between life or death, he said.
“We need to make every effort to beat heroin addiction,” Dziak said. “We can’t have one more.”
Wyoming County Judge Russell Shurtleff spoke about the success of the drug treatment court in Wyoming County, saying that 125 people have participated in the program since it was established in 2007, with 68 people graduating.
Wyoming County District Attorney Jeff Mitchell talked about how he has prosecuted thousands of drugs cases over the years. With many of those addicts some of the most talented people he has ever known.
Much of the problem he has seen through the years, Mitchell continued, is from families who are in denial and contribute to the enabling of the addict.
“They say, he can’t solve this, or they refuse to admit it exists,” Mitchell explained.
As long as such behavior exists, the problem of addiction will continue to perpetuate itself, he said.
“We must shine the brightest light to combat the problem,” Mitchell said.
Another person who shared the story of his addiction to - and recovery from - illicit drug use was Bill Stauffer, president of Pennsylvania Recovery Organization. Stauffer said he has been in recovery since 1986.
“I could have been a statistic,” Stauffer told the crowd.
Although he barely graduated from high school, Stauffer said he became a social worker after completing his drug rehabilitation and eventually became a college professor. He said the problem of addiction is genetic in nature and should be treated as such.
“I see many people in this crowd,” Stauffer said. “We are not the problem, we are the resource.
A candlelight vigil concluded the program but it was brief as the humidity turned into a windy thunderstorm, that held off until the last speaker had shared his message of hope.