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On Kevins Wings

President of the North Shore Community Association Gary Pollakusky, on left, who is running for legislator of the 6th district, with Rocky Point resident Ann Mattarella, who lost her son to drug addiction. The two were at a press conference in Rocky Point letting the public know of upcoming community forums related to drug addiction education. Photo by Kevin Redding

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.

Tracey Farrell, president of North Shore Drug Awareness, talks to Rocky Point residents about the importance of educating youth on the effects and possible results of drug addiction. Photo by Kevin Redding

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.

Brian, Lauren and Nick Nardone speak about the loss of their sister and daughter to drug addiction. Photo by Kevin Redding

“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.

Present the above “coupon” to Buffalo Wild Wings in Miller Place March 10 to donate 10 percent of your total bill to On Kevin’s Wings. Image from Tracey Farell

On March 10, beginning at 11 a.m., Buffalo Wild Wings in Miller Place will be donating 10 percent of each patron’s bill to On Kevin’s Wings, a nonprofit organization that funds airfare or transportation for those seeking drug or alcohol rehabilitation away from home.

After losing her son Kevin to an accidental overdose in 2012, Tracey Farrell began North Shore Drug Awareness, a Facebook page that provides information and assistance to those asking questions wanting to learn more about how to help a loved one battling addiction or looking for rehabilitation centers.

Farrell began to try to help other families who were also dealing with addicted children, while still dealing with one of her own: her daughter. She sent Brianna out of state and claimed it saved her life.

This prompted her to begin her new venture.

In addition to the funds raised March 10, the location is then, for the following 30 days, donating the same 10 percent of each customer’s bill who presents the Home Team Advantage Teammate Card. It’s good for dining in and take out and  can be presented straight from a cellphone.

On March 10, On Kevin’s Wings will also be doing raffles and 50/50 from 6 to 9 p.m.

Buffalo Wild Wings in Miller Place is located at 385 Route 25A.

Tracey Farrell, above, with her son Kevin who died of a heroin overdose, created an organization On Kevin’s Wings that helped Nick McErlean, below, afford recovery. Photo from Tracey Farrell

By Desirée Keegan

One hundred and one days ago, Nick McErlean got on his knees as he does every night and prayed.

The 27-year-old struggling drug addict and alcoholic was looking for a way out and a way off Long Island.

“I said, ‘God, you could send me to West Palm Beach, or you can keep me here,’” he said. “‘Whichever is your will.’”

At 8:30 a.m. the next morning, Tracey Farrell, a complete stranger to McErlean, called him regarding her new nonprofit organization, On Kevin’s Wings, to tell him she’d like to help him get that plane ticket out of New York and into recovery. After her two-hour initial conversation, she kept in close contact with him, and after a short two-day span, he was on a plane to Florida. He’s now 99 days sober.

Nick McErlean. Photo from Tracey Farrell

“I say this very seriously — it’s like God sent me an angel,” McErlean said. “Tracey found out about me and just took a chance, and it’s turned out to be the greatest thing to ever happen to me. I struggled for 13 years with drug addiction and alcoholism and what Tracey provided for me was a fresh start somewhere new. I could seek out the recovery I wanted and find out who Nick really is.”

Farrell, the founder of the group North Shore Drug Awareness, who helped work with Suffolk County to create the PSA “Not My Child,” following the loss of her son Kevin to a heroin overdose, said that although she initially wanted to create a coalition two years ago, she realized what she was doing was much more important.

“Of course, prevention is important, but North Shore [Drug Awareness] is really about awareness, communication, education, support — it’s just such a bigger scope than that,” she said. “I’ve had so many people reach out to me for help with their family members to get treatment, and so often I hear of families who want to send their kids out of state and unfortunately are stuck because of financial hardships. It totally clicked in my head, that that’s where I can help. Whether it’s airfare, bus fare, train fare. Anywhere I can help with transportation I’m going to take advantage of it.”

While formulating an idea of what she wanted her foundation to be, McErlean was living at a sober home in Riverhead. He said he was unhappy, and he was afraid he’d start using again.

“I’d been on Long Island my whole life, and I felt stuck,” he said. “I was caught in the grips of an overwhelming cocaine addiction. I saw my life on the streets ending with death, and I knew I didn’t want to die, and I knew that I didn’t want to be homeless and I didn’t want to hurt anybody else, most importantly myself.”

In conversation with a friend in the Riverhead facility, McErlean joked about wanting to move away. His friend responded that if he was serious, he might know someone who could help. McErlean was connected with Katrin O’Leary in West Palm Beach, who helped place his new friend in the home in Riverhead. The parent advocate told him that if he could get money for a flight, she’d save him a bed.

“It takes a village to help each other,” said O’Leary, who is also on the board of the Florida Association of Recovery Residencies. “Due to my connections, I connected him with someone who was willing to scholarship him in until he gets his feet on the ground.”

“I’m a suicide survivor, and the biggest thing that I’ve gotten out of this whole journey is my will to live back.”

—Nick McErlean

But he didn’t have money for a flight. After telling O’Leary, that’s when she reached out to Farrell, whom she’s known for a few years, asking if she knew anyone that could help.

“I literally had just started the foundation, so it was kind of amazing,” Farrell said when she received the call from O’Leary. “It reinforced me that this was the right thing to do.”

Two days later, she was helping put McErlean on a plane to Florida, and O’Leary, whose son is currently 25 months sober, couldn’t be happier to help him and for the work Farrell continues to do.

“He’s thriving,” O’Leary said. “It feels fantastic to help another person find their way into recovery. That’s what we all hope for. It’s someone’s child, and everyone should have a fair chance at life, especially when they’re willing. And Tracey is my hero. I cannot even fathom losing a child to substance abuse disorder and instead of just walking away, because that would’ve been her way out, she continues to help other children. I have the utmost respect for her.”

While some say the best way to get over the past is to face it head on, that was not the case for McErlean, who tried and continued to fail. He said being on Long Island he was surrounded by the reminders of his past, but in Florida, recovery and sobriety is all he knows, and he’s surrounded by people who will go to great lengths to get and stay sober.

“That’s what I needed in my life,” he said. “My whole life, I had a void within myself. I never felt worthy of anything. I never felt that anything I got I deserved. I always felt less than and I came down here on a self-seeking discovery and the journey is turning out to be beyond my wildest dreams already.”

In Florida, he’s gaining more than just sobriety. He has a full-time job, and he’s seeing and experiencing things besides sobriety he said he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to without Farrell’s help.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if I stayed on Long Island I would have relapsed and I would have died,” he said. “It’s just how my life had gone from 14 years old to the point before I moved down here. I’m a suicide survivor, and the biggest thing that I’ve gotten out of this whole journey is my will to live back.”

McErlean called Farrell when he reached 90 days sober. It happened to be the day Farrell started a GoFundMe page for her organization. As of publication, On Kevin’s Wings has raised $2,075 with the help of 33 donors.

Tracey Farrell’s children Breanna and Kevin. Kevin died of an overdose, leading to Farrell becoming an advocate for awareness and support for addicts. Her daughter is currently a recovering addict who, like Nick McErlean, received help from being sent off of Long Island. Photo from Tracey Farrell

“I’m watching the money come in … and $1 million could’ve come in and I would still be more happy about his 90 days,” she said. “I’m just so proud. That’s a big number. That’s when their brain actually starts to heal — after that 90-day mark, so it’s so key that he got there. My son didn’t get to get to the 90-day point. Kevin was just shy of 90 days. I could cry that’s how much it means.”

Farrell said when she first got involved in helping others, she told herself, “if I could help one person,” but knew one was not enough.

“The fact that people know me by name now and know that they can come to me and I can help them, it’s the most gratifying thing,” she said. “It helps me heal in ways I could never have imagined.”

Farrell held the organization’s first fundraising event, a food and wine pairing dinner at Pure North Fork Craft Kitchen & Bar in Wading River Jan. 25. The event sold out days in advance. The next fundraiser will be held at Buffalo Wild Wings in Miller Place in March.

If in need of help, reach out to Farrell through the Facebook page North Shore Drug Awareness or On Kevin’s Wings Facebook page. If you’d like to donate to the organization’s cause, visit www.gofundme.com/on-kevins-wingshope-takes-flight.

“It’s only because of this relocation process that I’ve become so willing,” McErlean said. “The addiction crisis on Long Island is absolutely at an all-time high and I’m tired of burying friends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, you name it. People are dropping like flies. As I gain more and more sobriety and as I gain more and more through this process, it isn’t about me anymore. I want other people to know and see that there is a way out.”

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