Authors Posts by Father Francis Pizzarelli

Father Francis Pizzarelli

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

A few months ago a lead story on the front page of a number of daily newspapers in our larger community supported the headline “I forgive you!” It was the words expressed by the son of a highly respected woman who was killed by a highly respected doctor on the North Shore who drove home under the influence.

The son addressed the judge, the court and the doctor on behalf of his family. He said, “you are still a good man and you are still a good doctor.” He went on to express that the physician needed to move forward with his life and continue to do good for others. “That is what our mother would want.”

The doctor expressed profound regret and remorse. Allegedly all who were in the court that day were powerfully moved. The judge was so moved by the victim’s family’s compassion and forgiveness that he sentenced the doctor to a much lighter sentence than he had initially intended.

This family’s compassion and call for forgiveness is a powerful challenge to all of us. When we are victimized, our initial reaction is to be vindictive and/or get even; forgiveness rarely makes it to center stage.

So many drug- and alcohol-related tragedies are not calculated but are caused by reckless decision-making. Reckless decision-making does not always equal a bad person. A growing number of extraordinary young people are making poor choices that are very costly. They must be held accountable. However, long jail sentences are not the answer. They do not rehabilitate the person; too often they merely reinforce negative behavior.

Long-term incarceration for nonviolent drug and alcohol offenses are not cost-effective or helpful. We spend thousands of dollars to warehouse human beings that need treatment and rehabilitation so they might grow from this tragic circumstance and not become recidivists but rather become productive contributing members of our community.

Recently I presided at the funeral of a young man from a fine family from Nassau County who overdosed on heroin. He was 28. I worked with him in treatment a number of years ago.

TJ had battled addiction since he was 15 years old. He started using at the end of high school. In his early 20’s, his drug use was out of control. With great reluctance, he finally agreed to long-term treatment, after countless short-term programs did not work.

As a broken young man, he found his way to a long-term, nontraditional residential treatment program. He finished his formal treatment in 18 months and elected to stay for an additional two years. His friends and family said those three years were the best years of his life.

After he left that community, his journey was fraught with chronic relapses. His last relapse took his young life. While he was in long-term treatment, he was diagnosed with a depressive and anxiety disorder. He reluctantly agreed to take medication, which helped greatly, but he hated the stigma that came with that decision. When he left treatment, he stopped all his medications and hid behind his smile, his compassionate heart and his generous spirit.

It has been my experience that a growing number of hard-core heroin addicts suffer from the additional affliction of a variety of mental health disorders that unfortunately go undiagnosed and untreated.

The heroin epidemic is a national health crisis. Our traditional approach to treatment is failing miserably. Too many insurance companies are sentencing our young adults to death because outpatient treatment for most opiate addicts does not work — they fail because they die!

Our political leaders at every level of government express so-called concern about the severity of this national health crisis. However, they continue to hide behind their rhetoric that provides great photo ops but no additional money or beds for long-term treatment.

Let’s demand that they deliver on their empty promises!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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People at an anti-drug forum stay afterward to learn how to use the anti-overdose medication Narcan. Above, someone practices spraying into a dummy’s nostrils. Photo by Elana Glowatz

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

The heroin epidemic continues to be out of control. More and more young people are losing their way and becoming paralyzed by this lethal epidemic.

The rhetoric from people in power is circular. It is going nowhere. We don’t need to wait another six months, another week or another day. We need action now!

We need more detox beds, but they don’t make money for health care institutions. Our 28-day programs have long waiting lists and are not long enough for the opiate/heroin addicts, but unfortunately insurance companies won’t pay for longer treatment. They barely pay for 28 days. If the truth be told, usually that 28 days is cut in half.

Some insurance companies continue to tell parents “have your son or daughter try an intensive outpatient program first; if they fail we will pay for a 28-day residential program.”  Well, they are failing — they are dying, and no one seems to care!

We need more long-term residential programs to accommodate the tremendous need in our larger community. The recidivism rate in regards to this epidemic is off the page. Obviously, we are failing and not doing something right.

The level of denial among parents continues to be deeply disturbing. We live in a community where dealers will now deliver heroin to your house. The AA and NA fellowships, which are a vital lifeline and network in our community for those working on recovery and wellness, have to worry that drug dealers are now waiting outside these meetings to prey on men and women in early recovery.

NARCAN, which some say is a miracle drug because it has brought people who have overdosed back to life, is now being used by heroin addicts who want to continue to party but have a safety net to keep them alive. So more and more people are getting trained on how to use this life-saving antidote; it’s no longer being administered by needle but now is a nasal spray.

Some are legitimately concerned that this new resource, which is supposed to save lives, may be perversely used to continue reckless and dangerous behavior.

Sadly, we are distracted from the serious health crisis because it is an election year that seems more fixated on hateful, demeaning attacks on individuals rather than offering us a comprehensive blueprint for reclaiming America — an America that once stood for respect for everyone’s human rights and was committed to social justice for all.

When you think about it, all the money that is being painfully wasted on political propaganda that literally says nothing about our future could be better spent feeding the hungry and creating and funding long-term residential treatment centers across the country that could genuinely begin to arrest this horrific epidemic.

What has happened to the idealism of our young and the energy they once had to make a difference in our world? Recently in one of my sociology classes at Suffolk County Community College we were discussing the state of our nation. I was shocked at how little these bright college coeds knew about American social policy. I was even more disturbed when one articulate student stood up and said he would not waste his time on voting in the November election because he believed it would not make a difference!

Needless to say, I pointed out countless examples where one vote and one voice changed the course of American history for the better. We need to lead by example and demand that those who are in power do something now about the senseless loss of life that is occurring every day in Suffolk County because of this national health crisis we call heroin.

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

The primary season that will ultimately determine who the candidates are for the next presidential election is moving forward with great speed. The money being spent on political propaganda is out of control. It could probably feed and house the homeless for at least a year.

On many levels it is a tragic waste of money that could be better spent on social programs to help the poor and/or the growing number of drug addicts in our country.

So much of the political literature is a creative repackaging of the old rhetoric that has painfully put us in the position we are in today.

Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is a breath of fresh air. His passion for the people of our nation is refreshing. His commitment to high ideals, to economic equity and to respect for the human rights of all is refreshing. His courage is shaping our national social agenda!

Sanders is urging us to debate ideas outside the box. Agree or respectfully disagree with the solutions — but allow these kinds of conversations to invigorate our civic life.

The Sanders’ candidacy has provoked young and old alike to get involved with the election of the next president, to take back our government and to let it once again be a government for the people and by the people. His challenging ideas are causing many of us to stop and think about what is really important to all Americans. He is urging us to dream again and genuinely believe that American dreams can come true.

Besides the profound waste of money on “ad hominem attacks,” the language and tone of this year’s presidential campaign is scandalous. It is outright disrespectful, and the attacks on a person’s character and the attacks on groups of people are reprehensible and embarrassing; and people wonder why so many of our youth are out of control.

Hopefully, once the candidates for the White House are determined, they will refocus the campaign and return to civility and respect and challenge the nation with ideas that will build a stronger America. Although the political landscape is pretty disturbing, people never stop amazing me and renewing and strengthening my hope that people really do care.

At the end of January there was a striking headline in the news that said “I forgive you!” A cardiologist from our larger community under the influence of alcohol in the early hours of the morning struck and killed an extraordinary woman. She was married with children and was a very active woman within our larger community.

At his sentencing the doctor, who also is an extraordinary person, expressed his profound remorse for what he had done to this family. The family stood before the court and the oldest son said, “You’re still a great doctor. You’re still a great man — I forgive you!”

That act of compassion and forgiveness is extraordinary. This remarkable family has profoundly reminded us that good people unfortunately make horrific mistakes but are still good people and deserve a second chance at redemption.

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson. The opinions of columnists are their own. They do not speak for the paper.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

It is only February of the new year and yet it is hard to believe that more than a dozen young people from our larger community have died prematurely from reckless decision-making and heroin overdoses.

Researchers in Suffolk County are saying that at least one person a day is dying of a heroin overdose. School districts are training their faculty and staff on how to use Narcan — that new nasal spray that is literally bringing people back to life. One local not-for-profit agency recently trained more than 60 members from the Port Jefferson community on how to use this miracle nasal spray.

Slowly, people seem to be finally recognizing the seriousness of this infectious epidemic. Parents are moving beyond their denial and painfully realizing that this affliction is threatening their children’s livelihood and is here to stay.

Awareness is rising but unfortunately at a snail’s pace; law enforcement and our criminal justice system are finally seeing this epidemic as it should be seen — as a serious health crisis, not as a crime.

Unfortunately, insurance companies continue to have the power over people’s lives with no accountability. They continue to determine, even though it’s supposed to be against the law, who lives and who dies, who gets access to residential drug and alcohol treatment and who doesn’t.

A few months ago, a desperate family sought my assistance for their 25-year-old son T.J. who was a hard-core heroin addict — and they didn’t have a clue! He almost died and finally was open to serious treatment. He said to his mom, “I will do whatever it takes to take back my life and live again!”

Unfortunately, I did not have a bed immediately available — our waiting list has 25 people on it and it is growing exponentially every day. I suggested a number of well-respected, short-term residential rehabilitation centers within our larger community.

Their insurance company would not pay for a short-term residential rehabilitation center until T.J. tried an intensive outpatient program. He did that; on the third day he failed. He overdosed on heroin and died.

Heroin is like no other drug on the street today. People trying it once are becoming hooked. It is destroying children, mothers and fathers and whole families. Bright kids, athletes, the rich and the poor — this drug knows no parameters or boundaries. Anyone who uses it is vulnerable for destruction.

This reprehensible policy is sentencing more and more heroin addicts to a premature death. T.J.’s insurance company should be held accountable and charged with his death!

As a community, we must stand up and say “No more!” What will it take? How many more bright, talented young people have to die before the people in power are ready to do something that really will make a difference?

Recently, at a local community meeting, Sen. Kenneth LaValle said that the State Senate was going to make the heroin epidemic a number-one priority on their agenda this year. Let’s storm the State Senate and the Governor’s office with letters and emails urging and demanding that they act now before another family buries a young person with a limitless possibility and promise.

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe another new year is unfolding. The world has never been so close to another world war as we are right now. There is social unrest everywhere.

In our own country we have not seen such social outrage and protests since the civil rights days of the 1960s. Universal health care, racial harmony, respectful tolerance for social differences at every level, renewed respect for the courageous men and women in law enforcement and public service as well as aggressively investing energy on affordable housing for the poor and immigration reform that respects the human dignity of every human being; these are some of the issues that must be at the top of our social agenda for the New Year 2016.

As challenging as this incomplete social agenda might be, I have renewed hope that our present generation of young leaders who are working in the trenches at this present moment are aggressively working for peace and justice without war or violence. I believe they believe in respecting every human being no matter what his or her social, political, religious or human circumstance as valued human beings.

We are fortunate that we live in an extraordinary community. For more than three decades, I have seen firsthand the depth of people’s compassion and care for others especially for the poor and wounded among us. I have been privileged to see the miracles that change and transform people’s lives.

Everyday people in our community who are hurting are healed and supported because of local neighbors’ courage and bravery to reach out and touch their lives, even if it means moving out of one’s comfort zone. It’s easy to pay lip service to compassion and care and still justify doing nothing. So many people quietly do so much for so many in need. Their acts of kindness and compassion are inspirational.

Taking into account our present social landscape as we begin the New Year 2016, I would like to make the following recommendations for all of us to consider working on:

■ Let’s work harder on building bridges instead of walls in our human relationships. The world is overburdened with walls and has too few bridges.

■ Let’s try to eliminate judging others and putting people into sterile boxes. Rather, let’s work harder at empowering one another to be the best that we can be, accepting all people for who they are.

■ Let’s replace destructive criticism and cynicism with heartfelt random acts of kindness and caring.

■ Let’s try to revive dreaming; a single dream can launch the journey of a lifetime!

Finally let’s take the whole year to aggressively work on healing our fractured and/or estranged human relationships that need love — before it’s too late.

As the New Year unfolds, let us not forget that each and every one of us possess the profound ability to make a difference in our world that counts. Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away!

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli, SMM

It is hard to believe that another holiday season is upon us. Our neighborhoods are decorated with lights, bows and wreaths. There’s a different spirit in the air despite the national and international landscape of fear, hate, terror and violence.

People really seem to make an effort to reach out especially to those in need during this time of year. Countless high schools, middle schools and elementary schools are sponsoring cake sales, toy drives and other creative initiatives to raise money for the poor and needy.

I am continually amazed at people’s compassion and generosity. Our local young people are dynamic and amazing. Recently a student from the Knox School reached out and said they wanted to do something special for the homeless.

A woman from Sound Beach shared a compelling story about a new pizzeria — a local woman wanted to buy two pizzas for a needy family and asked if the owner would match that. He did that and something more. He posted a coupon on his bulletin board for a free drink and slice of pizza for anyone who might need it; thanks to social media dozens of people were buying a soda and a slice for a needy person.

Allegedly a person who was down on his luck and very hungry took a free slice of pizza and a drink. His luck changed and he is now fully employed and came back to that pizzeria and posted a coupon for free slice and drink and a big note saying thank you for feeding me when I was down and out!

In Miller Place the Teachers Association did something very courageous with the support of their superintendent and school board. They sponsored a walk around their football field, with the slogan “Don’t Start, Be Smart.” They raised a few thousand dollars on that sunny fall afternoon and gave the proceeds to a local residential rehab. They sponsored this walk after one of their bright young alumni overdosed on heroin. He was an honors senior at the State University of Stony Brook.

During this holiday season there are hopeful signs that people do care and want to make a positive difference in the world. However, we still have to do so much more.

Too many vibrant bright young people are falling between the cracks. The heroin epidemic is out of control. The level of denial is still infectious. It is easy to blame the homeless who have no fixed address and/or no voice; they are the victims too!

What is deeply frightening is that a growing number of our young well-educated young people are having their heroin dropped off at their homes. Local drug dealers are now showing up at 12-step meetings all over and selling potentially lethal drugs to people in early recovery who are struggling to take it one day at a time. It is becoming a vicious nightmare.

We need to create a coalition of caring citizens that represents families, schools, churches, synagogues and mosques across the county. We need to stand together and challenge our government bureaucracy that has become deaf and blind to this epidemic and demand more beds for detoxification and long-term residential treatment.

During this season of hope let us light a candle  for all those who have lost their fight to live and remember those who are struggling to live one day at a time, those who are battling addiction and those with serious mental health issues. Let us not shun them but welcome them with open arms and compassionate hearts.

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Father Francis Pizzarelli

Since my last column, I’m aware of more than a dozen heroin overdoses in our larger North Shore community. Ten are recovering and two others are not among us any longer. These casualties of this infectious drug are young and old, rich and poor, well-educated and not so well-educated, white, black and Hispanic.

The painful reality is that right here in our wonderful North Shore community, our children and grandchildren are socializing with young men and women who are using heroin. Some of you work with them; some others unknowingly have met them on the supermarket line. This drug is everywhere; many of our young adults have connections who drop the drug off at their homes. It is mind-boggling.

The 10 who are barely recovering need to be in a long-term rehabilitation settings — that is, long-term residential treatment programs that are longer than three months. The access to treatment should be yesterday, not tomorrow, or next week or next month; that might be too late.

Insurance companies should not have the right to sentence your loved ones to death. If treatment is recommended by a licensed professional, one’s insurance company should bend over backward to accommodate that referral and pay without argument that claim.

Last year three young adults died waiting to get into residential treatment because their insurance companies said they had to fail at outpatient treatment first before they would pay for long-term treatment! That approach is not only scandalous, it’s criminal. They did fail at outpatient treatment — they died; three great young adults with so much possibility and potential.

Unfortunately, we do not have enough detox beds and enough long-term treatment beds for the epidemic need before us. Everyone is talking about this crisis, but few are doing anything about it. Our elected officials are deaf and blind to this issue. Only one candidate running for office in our county even made reference to the heroin epidemic in her platform. We don’t need another bill that lacks force, or another photo opportunity that gets lost to the archives of social indifference.

What we need is action today. We need people to step up and speak out and to continue to speak out until enough politicians take notice and are really finally willing to do something about this serious health crisis.

How many more vibrant young lives have to be lost before real action is taken — action that truly makes a difference?

What do concerned citizens and caring parents do? I believe we need to come together and provide mutual support for this lethal health crisis. We need to educate one another about the signs and symptoms. We need to remove the stigma around acknowledging the problem and stop the shame and blame game. We need to just care about the growing number of our young people who are being victimized by this lethal epidemic. We need to create a cooperative spirit within our larger community.

We need to network the religious community, the educational community and the governmental community. They need to work together to create resources that are desperately needed for those who have been infected. We don’t have the time to pass the buck; too many lives are at stake.

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

In late September of this year an aging Italian immigrant from Argentina, who is the leader of one of the largest religious denomination in the world, landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, just outside our nation’s capital.

This man addressed a joint session of Congress, the United Nations, led an interfaith prayer service at the 9/11 Memorial, spoke to a standing room only crowd at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and addressed a packed house at Madison Square Garden.

Over 100,000 people waited for as long as 10 hours to get a glimpse of this holy man in Central Park. He concluded his historic visit to the United States with a final stop in Philadelphia where more than one million people came out to greet him.

Catholics call this holy man the Vicar of Christ on Earth. The rest of the world knows him as Pope Francis. In his brief stay among us he challenged our leaders, both politically and religiously, to do more for the poor, for the undocumented, for the discarded and for the marginalized in our midst.

He embraced the homeless, visited immigrant schoolchildren in East Harlem and prison inmates at the largest prison in Philadelphia. Pope Francis gave 26 public addresses in his short time with us.

Everywhere he went people came out in record numbers to merely catch a glimpse of this prophetic voice, this humble pilgrim who is changing the landscape of the world. I was privileged to be the religious consultant for WCBS radio in New York, so I had access to all of his written speeches before he gave them.

Everywhere he spoke he challenged us to do more for the discarded and the marginalized. He spoke about being more inclusive, not being judgmental, not hiding behind rules and regulations but rather sharing and living the faith. He said to the cardinals, bishops and priests like myself that “we have to build bridges and not walls for that is what Christ did!”

New York City was on fire with Francis Fever. Everywhere I walked on that Thursday and Friday he was among us, and people from every walk of life and perspective commented on his simplicity, his humility and his persuasive choice of words.

What amazed me about this holy man is that he leads by example; he practices what he preaches. At the joint session of Congress he spoke about his four American heroes — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day (co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement,) and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk — probably among the most prolific spiritual writer of our time.

Each person was painfully human but also profoundly prophetic in calling us to respect the human dignity and human rights of all people who share our “common home.”

Probably the most powerful image that will stay with me forever about this pope was the picture of him in the popemobile driving from Philadelphia International Airport and all of a sudden, once again off script, telling the driver to stop. He opened the door and stepped out of his little Fiat.

The emotion of the crowd was beyond words. He walked up to a young teenager who was laying on a stretcher with his mother standing next to him, knelt down, hugged the boy and kissed him on the forehead. He took hold of his head and blessed him. He then stood up, hugged the teenager’s mother, walked back to his little Fiat and continued the motorcade to the city of brotherly love!

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

JT was the middle son from a wonderful family in our community. He was a senior in the philosophy program at Stony Brook University. This summer he was studying diligently for his LSATs because he was hoping to go to law school next fall. He was bright, handsome, funny, and very compassionate and loving. His family and friends loved him beyond words.

On a Wednesday in mid-August, JT overdosed on heroin. He had been battling heroin since he was 16 years old. His family did everything humanly possible to support his recovery. He had long stretches of excellent recovery, but this drug is so infectious and debilitating. It was hard and challenging almost every day.

On the Saturday after his death, I painfully presided at his funeral in a local North Shore Catholic Church. More than 600 people gathered to honor and celebrate JT’s life and show support for his devastated family. Most who were present were his peers — young people. His short life was senselessly lost because of a destructive choice with so much potential taken away from him in an instant.

Shortly after JT’s body was committed to the earth, a young man who was at his funeral overdosed on heroin. Thanks to the quick response of a friend who had Narcan with him, he lived!

After his release from a local hospital, the young man was encouraged to go back to a rehab center for extended treatment. His insurance made it very difficult. Finally, a rehab was willing to admit him, with the hopes of keeping him for 28 days, but only kept him for six days because that’s all his insurance would pay for.

This young man, at 24, is a chronic heroin user. He needs long-term residential care. The actions of both the rehab that released him because he could not pay and the insurance company who denied payment are equally unconscionable. Their decision-making is scandalous. If this 24-year-old dies, they should be held accountable for their social indifference.

Pope Francis is challenging people around the world to take care of their brothers and sisters, especially the poorest of the poor. We are among the richest country in the world and treat the most vulnerable among us like lepers.

It is very troubling that no one running for public office has the heroin epidemic on their political agenda. What will it take for those who lead us to recognize the senseless loss of young life around us because of destructive decision-making? When are the people in power going to allocate enough funds to increase long-term treatment beds for everyone — not just the rich and the overly insured?

When is the criminal justice system going to recognize that building bigger jails to house more and more young people that suffer from addiction is not the way to respond or ameliorate our epidemic drug problem?

How many more young people have to lose their lives because of this insidious epidemic before those who lead us take their heads out of the sand and do something courageous that will make a difference and protect the quality of life around all of us?

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.