Remembering those lost to drugs

JEFFERSON. Community groups organize the first observance of International Overdose Awareness Day in the township.

| 05 Sep 2023 | 06:48
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Anna Maria Caramanna and Ellen Geers have observed International Overdose Awareness Day in recent years by going to ceremonies in other towns.

This year, they decided to help organize one in Jefferson together with community groups Jefferson Township Connect, Jefferson Township Youth Coalition (JTYC) and the Municipal Alliance.

Both women lost a son to a drug overdose.

They were impressed by the number of people who attended the event Thursday, Aug. 31 at White Rock Pavilion, saying they didn’t know how many to expect despite working hard to spread the word.

“I’m really happy with the turnout,” Caramanna said. “We’re like maybe one person or two people are coming, but maybe those are the people who need to see this most.”

Mayor Eric Wilsusen, who retired in 2016 as the township’s deputy police chief, recalled starting the local Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program in 1991. “Back in those days, we were teaching kids about tobacco, alcohol and marijuana, all of which are legal today.”

Then heroin became the rage, and now people are dealing with fentanyl and even more powerful drugs, he pointed out.

In Jefferson, “we worked very hard to reduce the stigma and to be open about this,” he added.

State Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-25, told those who have lost family members, “We are here to support you. We are here to help you remember your loved ones.”

Referring to the banners lining the fence with photos of Americans who have died of overdoses, he said, “You understand just how tragic this disease is. ... It’s nights like tonight that make people realize just how precious life is and how hard we have to fight to make sure that our family and our friends and our neighbors are safe.”

He thanked law enforcement officers for their work in trying to get dangerous substances off the street. ”Fentanyl is killing our residents in record numbers.”

Morris County Sheriff James Gannon offered some optimism, noting that the number of overdose deaths in Morris County is declining. In 2023, 30 people have died of suspected overdoses in the county compared with 74 suspected drug-related deaths in 2022 and 84 in 2021.

Sussex County had 32 suspected drug-related deaths in 2021 and 28 in 2022, according to state statistics.

Gannon pointed to the many programs that help people who are struggling. ”We’re seeing positive outcomes although people still die from drug overdose as we know.”

The Hope One mobile van, which was started in 2017, has helped place 1,300 people in recovery programs and given out close to 8,000 Narcan kits, he said. Narcan can be used to reverse a narcotic overdose in an emergency situation.

Carly Sinnott, who works with Morris County Prevention is Key in Rockaway, helped organize the event. She also is co-coordinator of the JTYC, which is funded with a 10-year grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

”It’s important that we can all come together and talk about these issues,” she said.

The organizers expect the event to be held annually.