By Kevin Redding
As heroin and opiate-related deaths continue to rattle Suffolk County and devastate families, those personally affected are rallying the masses to help them stop the growing drug problem before it starts.
Residents holding pictures and wearing shirts covered in the names of loved ones who died from heroin, opiate and fentanyl overdoses stood together July 6 as Gary Pollakusky, president of the nonpartisan North Shore Community Association, announced the launch of a series of drug education and awareness-based community forums to be held at local school districts — starting Thursday, July 13, at Rocky Point Middle School. Pollakusky is running for Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker’s (D-Mount Sinai) seat, and has been backed by the Republican
The group, which was formed in 2013 to ensure transparency and advocate for local areas like Mount Sinai, Miller Place and Rocky Point, has kickstarted the forums alongside advocacy organizations Hugs Inc. and Thomas’ Hope Foundation, individuals in recovery and families and first responders who have witnessed the worsening problem firsthand. Collectively, all involved plan to lay a foundation for bigger and better drug awareness curriculums and assembly programs to be implemented in elementary, middle and high schools.
The mission is to prevent as many first-time users as possible by emphasizing the consequences of drugs to kids while pushing legislators to support stronger enforcement initiatives and treatment options.
Pollakusky said, at this point, the community can no longer rely on action to be taken by elected officials or school administrators.
“The families who have lost loved ones and those who are dealing with the results of this epidemic are outraged at our county government’s lack of action and responsiveness, and are looking to our community to come together to push for more drug awareness education and enforcement … now,” Pollakusky said to a crowd of local residents and first responders at Veterans Memorial Square in Rocky Point.
Tracey Farrell, a Rocky Point resident and president of the non-profits North Shore Drug Awareness and On Kevin’s Wings, knows both sides of the plague, as her son Kevin died of an overdose in 2012, and her daughter Breanna is currently three years in recovery.
“Children … they need to be afraid to ever try it and I don’t understand how they’re watching people die in the multitudes on a daily basis, and [they don’t want to educate].”
— Ann Mattarella
“We have organized this forum so that children and families can get more information on how to overcome this scourge and not feel alone in the battle,” she said. “It is imperative that our educational system consistently works to inform. … We are looking to support our community by having all of the community rise up and deal with this situation head-on.”
She said that while far too many lose their lives to these drugs, there’s hope for those that are still struggling and those who have yet to try anything. She has seen many overcome addiction through her nonprofit On Kevin’s Wings, which helps raise funds for those who can’t afford to get into, or get transportation to rehabilitation centers.
“It’s gotten so much worse, and now more than ever I need for people to use their voices because collectively we can make a difference,” Farrell said. “We need to shout from the rooftops that we need to look out for the next generation of kids. No one right now is willing to step up and we need that to change.”
Farrell said through these forums, she hopes to eventually implement a mandatory curriculum or program across the state, but added while many school districts in the area are on board for this type of serious drug education across the age groups, some parents don’t want to expose it their children to the harsh realities at such a young age.
Rocky Point resident Ann Mattarella, whose 29-year-old son died of an overdose, said she believes the younger the better when it comes to education.
“There is no question to me that this needs to be brought up at an elementary school level,” Mattarella said, holding a framed collage of photos of her son. “Children need to be afraid to do this — they need to be afraid to ever try it and I don’t understand how they’re watching people die in the multitudes on a daily basis, and [they don’t want to educate]. Something has to be done to scare these children.”
Brian Nardone, a Rocky Point high school student whose sister died in 2008 battling a heroin addiction when he was just 6 years old, said drug education in the classroom is not handled as seriously as it should be.
“They go through it for a week and basically say ‘drugs are bad, don’t do drugs,’ but they don’t really emphasize the consequences of what can happen,” Nardone said, standing alongside his mother, Lauren, and father, Nick. “Frankly, I feel people should be going on the local, state and even national level just to show what’s going on in this country. You don’t know it exists until it happens to you. Ignorance kills.”
Pollakusky said the organization will pursue local small businesses and parent-teacher organizations to help fund an assembly program and hope to get the attention of elected officials and community leaders as their initiative grows.
The first community forum will be held Thursday, July 13, at Rocky Point Middle School from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.