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Linda Ventura

Congressman Lee Zeldin, joined by Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini, health professionals, community groups, parents, expresses his support for the package of bills coming to the House floor this week. File photo from Jennifer DiSiena

By Phil Corso

Congress is taking unprecedented steps to fight heroin and opioid abuse, and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) brought the battle to Kings Park to spread the word.

In the company of other lawmakers and activists, Zeldin spoke at VFW Post 5796 last Thursday to discuss a package of bipartisan legislation the congressman has been pushing that addresses different angles of the disturbing upward trend in heroin and prescription opioid abuse on Long Island and across the country. The momentum from his stumping also helped propel several pieces of such legislation to a vote on the House floor by the following week.

The proposed legislation would review and update guidelines for prescribing opioids and pain medication, and require a report to Congress on the availability of substance abuse treatment in the country, among other provisions.

In his remarks last week, the congressman cited an alarming statistic from the Centers for Disease Control: more than 28,000 overdose deaths were recorded in 2014 as a result of heroin or opioid abuse — the highest number on record. Zeldin, who joined the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic in November, said Suffolk County recorded one of the highest rates of overdose deaths across the state, and needed a multi-pronged approach to address it.

“Next week, the House of Representatives is dedicating a full week to passing legislation aimed at addressing this epidemic, with a package of several bills to combat the growing heroin and opioid crisis,” Zeldin said. “Addiction and overdose deaths on Long Island and across our country are skyrocketing as a direct result of the increase in heroin and opioid abuse.”

In a phone interview, Zeldin said this was the first time the House had taken such unified measures to combat the problem, as its consequences were becoming impossible to ignore. The congressman used strong language when outlining the heroin addiction problem to drive it home.

“The rates that overdoses are increasing, and the fact that it’s not isolated to any one kind of community, has led many to describe this as an epidemic,” he said.

Joining Zeldin was Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini, who has been working on the front lines of the addiction problem, as Suffolk County suffered 103 fatal heroin overdoses in 2015 alone — more than double its neighboring Nassau County, which recorded 50. Sini also used the term “epidemic” to describe the fight he and his fellow officers have been facing.

“The heroin epidemic that our nation is facing is the number one public health and public safety issue here in Suffolk County,” Sini said. “Partnerships between local law enforcement and our federal representatives is a crucial tool in the battle against this scourge.”

And North Shore natives who felt the hurt of that “epidemic” stood beside Zeldin and Sini to throw their support behind legislative resolutions. Kim Revere, president of the Kings Park in the kNOw Community Coalition, and Linda Ventura, founder of the Thomas’ Hope Foundation, both said there were several different approaches lawmakers must take to address addiction, from prevention to rehabilitation.

“I believe wholeheartedly that prevention should begin at home,” said Revere, referring to the legislation as a wakeup call. “I am seeing many adults abusing alcohol and [prescription] drugs and that does not bode well for our children. I would like to see permanent evidence-based prevention programs implemented in school grades kindergarten through 12.”

Ventura, whose son Thomas died at age 21 from a drug overdose four years ago, said measures like Narcan, a medication which is administered to help reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, were important but not the only tool emergency responders should lean on.

“The United States needs to commit every resource imaginable to fight this insidious disease. The lifesaving tool Narcan needs to be accessible to all concerned to help save a life in the interim of an overdose to find treatment,” she said. “Treatment needs to be the appropriate level of care at the earliest intervention possible. Prevention — we must start educating and empowering our youngest of children with coping skills, relaxation techniques and communication skills.”

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Kim Revere of Kings Park In the kNOw speaks at the drug forum. Photo by Chris Mellides

By Chris Mellides

A grassroots advocacy group from Kings Park continued its quest to keep kids away from drugs last week with an informative forum flanked by a star-studded list of guest speakers.

Students attending William T. Rogers Middle School in Kings Park joined their parents at the school gym Wednesday night, March 4, in welcoming the speakers who assembled for the annual preventing destructive decisions forum.

Hosted by Kings Park In the kNOw (KPITK), a grassroots drug outreach and prevention organization, the forum served as an opportunity for parents and their children to become better educated on the perils of alcohol and drug addiction.

Opening the event, a member of the school faculty addressed parents and students who sat opposite a large stage and offered words of encouragement for the young members of the audience.

“Hopefully we can impress upon you tonight how much we love you and how much your families love you and the importance of the actions that you take at this level while you’re here with us at the middle school,” said the one faculty member, before introducing the night’s speakers.

The first speaker at the podium was Kim Revere, a volunteer for KPITK since 2007 and a mother of four. She described getting involved with the organization because of the growing drug problem gripping our communities and the difficulties she faced at home with her 27-year-old son, who at the time was struggling with heroin addiction.

“What Kings Park In the kNOw does is we try to bring educational programs into the schools and into the community to keep parents educated and educate kids as to what the trends are and try to have kids make positive decisions in their lives,” Revere said. “This town is growing and kids are dying. My son has been to rehab nine times; he is finally on the right track. He’s 27 years old and I will not trust him until the day I die. No matter how good he does. I don’t want another parent to live with that pain,” she added.

Suffolk County Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) was also in attendance and drew from his 25-year background in law enforcement to discuss the lasting impact that narcotics have on local communities.

“I used to say you put the police radio on the counter and when it went off 90 percent of those calls coming out of there are drug or alcohol related,” Trotta said. “Whether it be domestic abuse, a car accident, a robbery or a theft, people break into houses to get stuff to sell to get drugs. They’re not going to be paying their mortgage with it.”

Trotta also delivered an overview of Suffolk County’s Social Host Law and New York State’s 911 Good Samaritan Law passed in 2011, which according to the legislator is a “great law” that states that if you are in a situation involving illicit substances and someone with you is in immediate danger that you should “call 911, and you will not be arrested” through implication.

Rounding out the forum were presentations from Thomas’ Hope founder and drug prevention advocate Linda Ventura, and Kym Laube, executive director of Human Understanding and Growth Services.

Ventura lost her son Thomas to drug addiction in March 2012, when he died from a heroin overdose. Since then she’s been making routine trips to Albany to push for change in the area of addiction treatment services and to better define how we should combat drug use in New York State. On the one-year anniversary of her son’s death, she launched Thomas’ Hope, a nonprofit foundation that promotes drug awareness, prevention and advocacy.

As executive director of HUGS, Laube recognizes the risks that are present for young people and that the unfortunate circumstances that shook Ventura’s household with the loss of her son are becoming increasingly common as drug use grows in popularity throughout Long Island and across the country.

Through the HUGS program she actively seeks to promote social growth among children and adolescents through leadership programs and retreats and allow them to bond and have fun in the absence of drugs and alcohol.

“All of our activities are meant to have kids feel like they are a part of something and a part of something bigger,” Laube said. “So, that we become just as fun of an activity as maybe some of the other high risk choices that are out there.”

Taking time to address the night’s event, Laube reminded parents and students that while beneficial, the real challenge presented to prevention experts and lecturers who engage with an audience is the impact of their messaging over the long term. In order for lasting change to occur, a large community effort is important and necessary, according to Laube.

“We know that unless we begin to have consistent messaging all throughout, that it’s just one night of information,” said Laube. “So what we encourage communities to do is to really begin to bring about that community-level change and to have events regularly and often, and have parenting sessions and get better programs in schools for kids so it moves beyond just this one-shot event.”

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Linda Ventura, center, holds up a picture of her son Thomas, who overdosed on heroine three years ago. She will be one of the many speakers at a Kings Park drug forum in March. File photo

By Jenni Culkin

A forum will be held at William T. Rogers Middle School, 97 Old Dock Road, Kings Park, on Wednesday, March 4, at 7 p.m., with the hope of keeping the next generation of Kings Park residents safe and informed, event organizers said.

The event is going to be geared toward middle school students and their parents, making a point to intervene while the middle school students of Kings Park are still young and impressionable.

“The best way to stop addiction is through prevention,” says Kimberly Revere, president of Kings Park In The kNOw.

Attendees can expect Kym Laube, the executive director for Human Understanding & Growth Services, to speak to the parents about understanding trends in addiction and other decisions that have potentially destructive outcomes. She will also be discussing the role that parents play in their teenagers’ attitudes and provide them with the tools and information that they need to navigate the challenges of their children’s teen years.

“Parents are still the number one influence on their teenagers,” Laube said.

There’s also going to be a speaker for the adolescent attendees. Linda Ventura, a mother who lost her son to an overdose. She will be sharing the journey that she and her family went through.

Suffolk County Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) will also be speaking. All of the attendees will listen to a brief overview of laws like the Social Host Law and the 911 Good Samaritan Law that affect those who are involved with, or know somebody who is involved with, drugs and alcohol. Trotta is a retired Suffolk County police detective who was assigned to the FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force for over 10 years.

In The kNOw’s goal is for each of the communities in the state to take care of itself in order to take care of the overall problem.

Even those who have no substance abuse are still affected, and they are advised to attend to learn about what the community can do to prevent any possible damage.

“We are facing an opiate epidemic in this country,” Revere said. “Something has to be done.”

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Linda Ventura memorializes her late son Thomas by putting her face at the forefront of the ongoing battle to curb illegal drug use and its unintended consequences. Photo from Linda Ventura
Linda Ventura memorializes her late son Thomas by putting her face at the forefront of the ongoing battle to curb illegal drug use and its unintended consequences. Photo from Linda Ventura

By Chris Mellides

The legislative office building in Albany hums with activity as concerned Long Island parents and members of the addiction treatment community prepare to convene with state assemblymen and insurance company executives for a roundtable discussion.

King’s Park residents Linda Ventura and Maureen Rossi, who both endured the long drive to the state capital the previous night, break away from their group moments before the meeting and casually walk to the nearest bathroom.

Inside the brightly lit lavatory, where toilet paper lines the old tiled floor, Ventura reaches into her purse and retrieves a piece of Tupperware, like she has many times before, and together with Rossi the two of them pray.

Ventura, a mother of three, watched helplessly as her eldest son Thomas succumbed to his heroin addiction two years ago. And now his ashes, tucked neatly inside that plastic container, serve as a reminder of why she tirelessly works toward spreading opiate awareness and tirelessly lobbies for political change. For such efforts Linda Ventura has been selected as one of the People of the Year by this paper.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association, was among those concerned parents and addiction treatment advocates who joined the dozens of insurance executives at the round table meeting.

He recalls the tension choking the room and the moment a state legislator asked Ventura to make her case for why she thinks insurance companies are handling treatment coverage poorly.

“Linda opened her purse, took out a Tupperware, put it on the table and said, ‘This is my son Thomas. This is what outpatient treatment looks like.’ And the room was stunned,” said Reynolds. “You know I’ve seen it all and done it all and heard it all, and it left me and everybody else in the room speechless.”

Reynolds says that he met Ventura roughly two years ago through a mutual contact and that his work with her became much more focused when they started their legislative push.

“She has been at the forefront of our push for a number of bills in Albany. The thing about Linda is that addiction messed with the wrong mom,” Reynolds said.

Ventura, 54, was born and raised in Oceanside and moved to Kings Park in 1993, where she’s continued her work as a financial advisor.

In March 2012, her son Thomas died from a heroin overdose. He was 21. In the years leading up to his death, Ventura says that a tumultuous family life had put stress on her children.

“My mom and dad passed and my ex-husband’s mom passed. Every year we lost one of them and him and I were going through a divorce,” Ventura said. “So there was a lot of loss, tremendous loss in the family and Thomas was especially sensitive.”

At 15 years old, Thomas began smoking marijuana and drinking beer, and by his senior year of high school Ventura recognized that her son had a problem with prescription painkillers. During the fall after his graduation, Thomas went to his first rehab.

That’s when Ventura said she realized how difficult it was to get insurance coverage for her son’s treatment.

“While he was covered under his dad’s policy, the family as a whole was entitled to one stay at a rehab. So we used that the first time that he went. It was then covered under me,” Ventura said. “We heard things through the next few years and [were told] that he’s not high enough for treatment, which still boggles my mind.”

In order to receive continued coverage for treatment services, Thomas had to continually fail at outpatient services before he could be approved for more comprehensive residential treatment, according to Ventura, who claims that this rule was “insane.”

After her son’s fatal overdose, Ventura said she knew that she needed to bring awareness to the opiate problem affecting Long Islanders, and help to change how insurance providers offer coverage to families seeking help for their sons and daughters struggling with addiction.

On the one-year anniversary of her son’s death, she launched Thomas’ Hope, a nonprofit foundation that promotes drug awareness, prevention and advocacy. Through this effort, Ventura has spoken at numerous events to raise awareness and has raised money to assist families battling with substance abuse.

During a Thomas’ Hope fundraiser Ventura met Maureen Rossi, chairperson of Kings Park in the kNOw (KPITK), a grassroots nonprofit designed to help eradicate illegal drugs from the Kings
Park Community.

“From the first time I heard Linda speak, I knew she had the gift — she has an outstanding ability to reach people,” Rossi said. “I was impressed with her work and shortly after I hired her to speak at our annual Preventing Destructive Decisions event. Linda’s actions and words move mountains.”

Together, Ventura and Rossi joined parents and community leaders in what would be several legislative visits to Albany.

Late this spring, they pushed for passage of Senate Bill S4623, which would reign in the insurance companies and force them to pay for treatment when it’s warranted. That bill and a number of others passed the state Senate and will go into effect April 1, 2015.

County Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) represents Suffolk’s 13th District, has followed Ventura’s work with KPITK and has recognized the impact she’s made on the local community and on New York state as a whole.

“She went up to Albany and she got 13 different pieces of legislation passed, and the most important one is that insurance companies will be paying for treatment programs,” Trotta. “She’s driven, she’s smart, capable and she knows what’s going on. She’s really led the charge.”

Ventura said she hopes to see a sober high school brought to Long Island this year that would serve as “a place kids can come back to and be treated differently when they come out of rehab.” She also said she plans to discuss prescription protocol and the need for better education among medical professionals who prescribe controlled substances when she returns to Albany.

When it comes to stomping out the heroin and opiate epidemic on Long Island Ventura said it’ll have to be done as a group effort.

“New York and Long Island is the epicenter of the epidemic, which is something we should not be proud of,” Ventura said. “We can’t legislate ourselves out of it and we can’t police our way out of it. Those things are important measures to take, but everybody’s got to step up to the plate.”