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Hope Walk for Addiction

Father Frank with Bill Reitzig Sr. at the Hope Walk for Addiction in Mount Sinai. Photo by Kevin Redding
Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

The political rhetoric is deplorable. International tensions are at an all-time high. Social chaos seems to rain everywhere. Despite this contentious landscape, there are still courageous men and women among us that are doing extraordinary things to make our community a better place to live.

On Saturday, April 22,, on the first anniversary of their son’s death due to a heroin overdose, a Miller Place family led the first Hope Walk for Addiction at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. More than 600 people gathered on that Saturday morning to celebrate the belief that miracles do happen and hope does live!

What was so impressive about that morning is that it brought the young, the old, the rich and the poor, the religious and not so religious together. This national health crisis does not know a particular profile. This epidemic is infecting families everywhere; no one is exempt.

The Reitzig family was the prime movers behind this day of hope. The Town of Brookhaven and Hope House Ministries were the co-sponsors of this life-giving event. Billy Reitzig was 25 years old when he passed. He was born into a loving family. As a family, they were really connected to each other. Like many young men his age, he had his struggles but was getting help. He used heroin only once and lost his life. He was bright, good-looking and had a great job. He was well-liked in the workplace and in the neighborhood where he grew up. Unfortunately, the affliction of addiction had its death hold on him.

Every parent’s nightmare is to bury a child. To lose a son to the heroin epidemic is beyond words. His parents would have been justified because of their unbearable loss and grief to have withdrawn quietly and suffered with their pain and profound loss in silence. Instead of withdrawing, they decided to celebrate their son’s life by becoming activists in educating and raising public awareness about this horrific national health crisis. To honor their son’s memory, they have aggressively been raising awareness and raising money for desperately needed long-term treatment beds, which are in short supply.

Countless families came wearing T-shirts; honoring their sons and daughters who have senselessly been lost to this infectious epidemic. Those who spoke that morning were challenging, inspirational and people filled with a renewed sense of hope. Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) who were co-sponsors, Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) as well as a number of other elected officials made an appearance to show their support.

In mid-April Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that millions of dollars are being allocated to provide treatment for those suffering from addiction. The more important question is when are the RFPs (requests for proposal) going to be released for that important money? Will government streamline the regulations so that that money can be utilized sooner rather than later? Treatment beds are needed ASAP!

Enough with the passive lip service alleging support; we need aggressive action yesterday. By the time you read this column, I will have buried another 25-year-old young man from Miller Place with untapped potential and possibility due to the heroin epidemic.

In addition to our urgent need for long-term treatment beds, we need extensive, comprehensive prevention education and treatment resources to support the growing number of families being infected by this horrific epidemic.

Bill Reitzig Sr. and his family are an inspiration to all who are struggling with the burden of addiction. Despite their pain and profound loss, they are beacons of hope within our community that this epidemic will end one day and the day will come when parents will not bury their children anymore due to this devastating affliction.

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

As the number of drug-related overdoses on the Long Island grows, one parent refuses to bury his head in the sand.

On the one-year anniversary of his son’s fatal heroin overdose, William Reitzig wasn’t in bed grieving. Instead, the Miller Place parent was on stage at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai asking hundreds of community members to hug one another.

“Hug your loved ones like I hugged my son every day … My hope is that you leave here today with the same mission as my wife and I — that with love and compassion, we have the power to overcome the perils of drug addiction.”

—Michael Reitzig

“Hug your loved ones like I hugged my son every day … don’t let a minute go by without saying ‘I love you,’” Reitzig said to a crowd of emotional parents, extended family members, friends and strangers. “My hope is that you leave here today with the same mission as my wife and I — that with love and compassion, we have the power to overcome the perils of drug addiction.”

That mission resonated throughout Hope Walk for Addiction, an April 22 fundraising event created by Reitzig and co-sponsored by Brookhaven Town and Hope House Ministries — a nonprofit based in Port Jefferson that supports people suffering the disease of addiction.

Reitzig, whose 25-year-old son Billy struggled for years with opioid pills and ultimately died after a one-time use of heroin last April, kickstarted “a war on addiction” by raising awareness, educating about addiction, raising money to help those struggling and unite the community.

“This is [really] for the community — it’s not about me, it’s not about my son, it’s to try and make a difference moving forward,” Reitzig said. “I can’t do anything about the past at this point, but going forward we can all chip in … we’re all in the same boat. Today is about all the families that struggle every day with this disease getting together because this is no longer acceptable and we need to do something.”

The large crowd, mostly loved ones of those battling addiction or those who died from it, collectively walked Cedar Beach’s Nature Pathway in memory of those who overdosed. About a dozen names could be seen on signs along the scenic trail.

“I don’t think people realize how many people are depressed and they don’t know how to handle that and so people self-medicate and that’s part of the issue. Ninety-one young people die every day [from this] and that’s unconscionable.”

—Francis Pizzarelli

Local leaders, self-help experts and bands occupied the stage to address the issue that brought everyone together. Various sponsors, including WALK 97.5 and St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, were set up at tables taking donations and educating others, and representatives from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office gave seminars on how to use Narcan, a life-saving nasal spray that can revert the effects of an overdose.

More than 500 people registered for the event, and all proceeds — totaling more than $34,000 at the end of the day — went to Hope House, which currently doesn’t have enough space for the overwhelming amount of people who need its services.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, founder of Hope House, counseled Billy while he was rehabilitating in the facility’s outpatient treatment program for a few months, and ultimately presided over his funeral.

Reitzig worked closely with Pizzarelli, and Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), to make the Hope Walk a reality.

“Billy was a loving and caring guy, but like a lot of people today, he had his demons and struggled with that,” Pizzarelli said. “I don’t think people realize how many people are depressed and they don’t know how to handle that and so people self-medicate and that’s part of the issue. Ninety-one young people die every day [from this] and that’s unconscionable. [William] elected to say ‘we’re not going to let this continue, we’re going to do something about it and we’re going to protect the quality of life of all our younger and older people addicted to heroin.’”

This is a time to come together as a community, Pizzarelli added, and celebrate the hope Reitzig embodies.

“We need to help stop the stigmatized feeling that comes with addiction. The users feel alone as it is, they don’t feel proud of themselves. They are good people that made one bad decision.”

—Sue Meyers

“I don’t think I’ve met more resilient, strong, dedicated and passionate people in my whole life as I have in William and his family,” Bonner said. “He’s changing the future of so many people by doing this. We’re losing a generation to addiction and this is an opportunity to lift each other up and strip the layers of shame back. It’s all around us and no community is safe from it.”

Patty Eiserman, of Sound Beach, wore a shirt bearing the face of her nephew David Smallwood, who died in 2013 when he was just 22. She said her goal is to educate children as young as possible so they don’t start using.

“I don’t want to say it’s impossible to get them clean,” she said, “but it’s very, very hard.”

Manorville resident Melanie Ross, whose brother died last year after a 10-year battle with addiction, said the situation ravaged the family. It was the first time she’d attended an even like this.

Sue Meyers, a Setauket resident, said she was walking for her son, Michael Moschetto, a Ward Melville graduate who died in December at 28.

“It’s in his name, but I’m also here to help show support for other people and donate as much money as I have in my pockets,” Meyers said. “We need to help stop the stigmatized feeling that comes with addiction. The users feel alone as it is, they don’t feel proud of themselves. They are good people that made one bad decision. I think events like this really give people hope and a sense of direction.”

Join the community for a Hope Walk for Addiction at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai on Saturday, April 22 at 10:30 a.m.

By Father Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

That’s the headline on the cover of the April 3 edition of Time magazine. Definitely a provocative question with all that is happening in our nation and among our presidential administration. Fake facts, fake news, manipulative truth is contributing to a cesspool that is overflowing and infecting communities across our country.

Fact: Our president was elected by the Electoral College in November 2016 and was inaugurated as our president in January 2017.

Fact: The Republicans control Congress and the White House.

Fact: Presidential leadership is hard and complex!

The challenge for all of us is to seek the balance with insight, integrity and honesty with all that we do and say. An entire younger generation is hanging in the balance, waiting in the wings to see how we act and treat one another. It is critical that we lead by example and hold everyone accountable for what they say, for what they do and for what they have failed to do!

Change is disarming and difficult but necessary, if we are to grow and reach our full potential. It is frightening because we are being forced to move out of our comfort zone and genuinely look for truth and recognize that not all who lead us tell the truth. We must transcend all of our political differences and empower one another to work for the common good of all Americans, no matter what their social or political circumstance.

Our new presidential administration was elected on the principle of change, and it brings many creative new ideas that urge us to look at doing business differently. The opioid epidemic, according to our new president, is a priority social issue for his administration. Members of the administration want to confront, contain and ultimately end this lethal infection.

For more than 25 years, I have given voice to this serious epidemic issue. I have talked at more governmental task force meetings than I can count. Like many others in the trenches, I am disgusted with the rhetoric, which is on the slow track to nowhere. Every level of government promises action and has delivered little or nothing.

We need money, beds and long-term residential programs without red tape for people in need who can access it immediately before it’s too late. Every day I have to turn young people away from our long-term residential treatment program. The waiting list is growing exponentially. We try to network people to wherever a bed might be available. Today available beds are hard to come by.

Insurance companies make the issue of treatment even harder. They ask their clients who are heroin addicts to try outpatient treatment first and fail before they are willing to pay for a short-term 28-day residential program. They are failing in record numbers — they are dying! That is unconscionable!

On Saturday, April 22, the first annual Hope Walk for Addiction will take place at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai at 10:30 a.m. It’s not only a memorial walk to honor and remember a 25-year-old who overdosed on heroin by the name of Billy Reitzig, but also a community effort to raise awareness, provide education and raise funds for individuals and families afflicted by addiction. For information, visit www.hopewalkforaddiction.org.

This effort is being championed by Billy’s dad, Bill Sr., who lost his son to heroin on April 22, 2016. He could have buried his head in the sand with grief and pain, but he chose to honor his son’s life by courageously giving voice to one of the nation’s most serious health crises in this century. He and his family’s efforts are courageous and heroic and are making a profound difference. They are genuinely inspiring us to do more. Miracles do happen. I see them everyday! Hope does not abandon us; we abandon hope!

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

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