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Tracey Farrell

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.”

By Tracey Farrell

I was honored to be named a Person of the Year by Times Beacon Record News Media for 2015.

While I was truly honored, I was more excited at the prospect of getting the word out about the work I do with my group: North Shore Drug Awareness.

After losing my son to an accidental overdose in 2012, I was given a voice I chose to use to help other families who are struggling with addiction — to share my failures and successes, and the resources I have found and acquired through networking.

The absolute most poignant part of this story is that my story was published. The original story — in which I was named a person of the year — was seen by a woman who recognized me in my photo that accompanied the article as a client in her accounting office. She immediately shared the story with her best friend — a friend who desperately needed help with her addicted children.

A message I received from her changed a life. Linda Cirone was absolutely paralyzed by her children’s addictions. Not only did she enable her adult children, but she hid in shame. She could barely function or participate in her own life, and in her message in my Facebook inbox, she used that key word — Help.

Tracey Farrell with Linda Cirone at TBR News Media’s honorary dinner. Photo from Tracey Farrell
Tracey Farrell with Linda Cirone at TBR News Media’s honorary dinner. Photo from Tracey Farrell

I brought her with me to the honorary men and women of the year dinner, because her story of how she reached out to me was too important not to share. The power of that article could potentially save a life. And it did … her own.

This past year has been a roller coaster of change for her.

She chose to finally open up and share beyond the confines of her best friend and family members who would listen. She reached out through social media to the different parent groups that she learned of and began to realize she was so not alone. She began to share her story, which, like mine, has helped others.

Her children are still struggling, and while one is improving, Linda has grown in her own recovery. Yes, her own.

Addiction is a family disease and, as a parent, you too must learn to cope, or you will lose yourself in the process. She has learned to no longer enable like she did in the past. She has also followed a dream. She moved away from her children to the warmth of Florida, and now has a lovely condo on a small waterway. While she still feels the pull of her children’s addictions, she has also started to feel some freedom. Freedom to feel the sunshine, enjoy a nice day out with friends and family she has near her. This was not even an option to her a year ago — just a dream.

While her son was in Florida after we came up with a plan for him to seek outside-of-state rehabilitation, she met a woman who is the guardian angel for parents who send their kids to Florida for rehab.

The other day, as I opened my Facebook feed, I saw a post.

Linda checked in to the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County with that angel I spoke of. She attended her first task force meeting to help fight for positive changes in addiction services and housing in that area.

She has grown exponentially over this past year. She needed to. She was sick of hiding, but didn’t know where to look for help. And she found it. All because of an article in a local newspaper.

Tracey Farrell, previously Tracey Budd, is a Rocky Point resident who, since her son’s passing, educates others on drug abuse and assists in finding help for those who are struggling or know someone who is struggling with addiction. She is the founder of North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates and also a 2015 TBR Person of the Year.

By Tracey Farrell

In 2002, my 16-year-old son Kevin had surgery on his shoulder for a football injury. He was prescribed 60 Vicodin pills with no other instructions but to take one or two of them every four to six hours for pain.

I didn’t know they weren’t like antibiotics, and you weren’t supposed to take all 60. He was still in pain, so they gave him 60 more. Well, guess who is now addicted to them? He was buying them during lunch.

This is the high school quarterback. His girlfriend is the cheerleading captain. He is beautiful, loving, fun and funny. His friends love him. His teachers and coaches love him. He has not an enemy in the world. He graduates. He works. He is a great kid.

Kevin chose to smoke pot instead of taking the pills soon after high school, but at some point he went back to the pills — especially since I was on him all of the time to stop smoking. He had multiple concussions over his high school football career. After his last one, I saw a change in his personality. He was easily angered, depressed, anxious — all things he was not before.

I didn’t know at the time that marijuana and opioids help make all of those symptoms so much better. The drugs make them disappear. I didn’t know that the only enemy he did have was the one within himself.

Tracey Farrell and her son Kevin Norris in 2010. Photo from Tracey Farrell
Tracey Farrell and her son Kevin Norris in 2010. Photo from Tracey Farrell

When Kevin went back to the pills, he began snorting them this time. A lot of them. Once I saw a powder residue on his glass desk and, only knowing what I saw on TV, I put it on my tongue to see if it would numb it.

Nope, not cocaine.

I knew deep down something was going on. He didn’t shower as often or take care of his teeth. Changes in his habits were starting to happen.

These Oxycodone pills are expensive, and make you painfully sick when you don’t have them. An addict becomes so desperate that they will beg, borrow and steal to get them — literally. Eventually when you have exhausted stealing your family’s available cash, you steal their jewelry, sports memorabilia and anything else of value you can sneak out of the house. You write bad checks from your mom’s bank account. Eventually you realize there’s an alternative available and you turn to heroin. It’s cheap, and readily available. You just have to put money in your mailbox and drugs appear moments later.

That point happened some time in 2011. I assume he started snorting it before he shot it.

Nine years in and I am still clueless, uneducated, unaware to so much of it. Kevin never, ever looked high in front of me. I was missing spoons, which are used to melt the heroin down to a soluble form, but I still thought maybe they were thrown out by mistake? Yes, he had been to rehab, but I didn’t know that it didn’t fix you. I didn’t know that me giving him no option but to enter rehab wouldn’t work. I didn’t know that he had to want to be in recovery.

I learned how to be manipulated. I enabled everything. I believed every lie he told me and would hand over money in fear he would be killed for the money he owed.

Eventually, he must leave the house. Kevin would live in his car, on which I was now making the payments and insuring. It’s winter and I cannot fathom the thought of him in a car at Christmas, so I get him an apartment. I sent his stepfather over many times to see if he was alive when I couldn’t get in touch with him. I even called 911 on him when I thought he was suicidal, which resulted in a short hospital hold. I started to understand that he does not want this for himself, but doesn’t know how to stop. He fears withdrawal, and I hear his pain and cries when he begs me for money because he is so sick. He is eventually hospitalized for a blood infection. I realize I can no longer keep him in that apartment.

I clean the place out.

He didn’t need much food. The only thing in the fridge was water. I find all the things he has used as a tourniquet. There is an amazing amount of plastic garbage bag drawstrings removed from bags, Q-tips everywhere with the cotton taken off which are used as filters. So many water bottle caps. So many syringes.

“There were times I threw money into his car so angrily when he asked me. I struggled between loving him and hating him.”

I didn’t want my son to die, but I’m realizing I’m making it more comfortable for him.

Through most of his addiction he was highly functioning, always holding down a job. This was no longer the case.

He gets out of the hospital and is back to his car. I’m giving him $20 a day. He gets food stamps and Medicaid from the Department of Social Services. I find he sells what’s on his food stamp card. I pump gas in his car, but I do not hand over more cash. There were times I threw money in his car so angrily at him when he asked.

I struggled between loving him and hating him.

He began living in a hotel with his dealer and got arrested for possession of a syringe. He’s assigned a public defender, but of course Mom pays the fees and it’s knocked down.

But a few days prior, he made the choice on his own — which is key — to seek help.

He made the calls on his own, instead of me doing all of the legwork, to enter South Oaks Hospital in Amityville. His third try at rehab. But now, he wants it.

I went to a family meeting about 10 days in.

There he is. My son, my real son. Thank you, thank you and thank you.

He was enrolled in a 28-day program. He went to Mainstream House in Riverhead, a sober house. We do family things together again. We shop, we go to lunch, dinner. He wanted to be around us again. I haven’t had this in years. We laugh, we cry.

He got kicked out of sober living for having Ambien, a prescription drug, because he had a hard time sleeping. I let him back home. Kevin has a new job, a new girlfriend. He seems happy.

Tracey Farrell, a Rocky Point resident and founder of North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates, displays her luminaire in memory of her son Kevin during the third annual Lights of Hope event in Port Jefferson on Aug. 31. Photo by Nora Milligan
Tracey Farrell, a Rocky Point resident and founder of North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates, displays her luminaire in memory of her son Kevin Norris during the third annual Lights of Hope event in Port Jefferson on Aug. 31. Photo by Nora Milligan

I didn’t go to the classes I should have. I didn’t learn that someone new to recovery does not want their past thrown at them. One day at a time is their mantra. Yesterday is the past. He’s going to his meetings on a regular basis, but now that he is working, that starts to not be as often. Anything that goes missing I automatically accuse him. He wants a new phone because his is old and cracked. I bought him a new one and he “lost” it. I still tell him that if he didn’t sell it he would have it. He tells me he is working an honest program and that he has told me everything — including that he did not sell the phone. I apologize and tell him I am proud of him.

Kevin is working for a company which does party rentals.

One Sunday, in September 2012, he came home looking tired. He was thrilled that they gave him a $100 tip. They even gave him the leftover cake, which we of course ate together. We spoke of the cotton candy on his sneakers, because he worked the cotton candy machine. He thought it was fun.

The next day, his sister found him dead in bed. It was an accidental overdose.

They say money is a trigger.

I will never know what led him back. I know now I didn’t cause it. I couldn’t control it and I couldn’t cure it. I prepared myself that this day could come, but I thought he was in the clear. Our very last conversation was about cotton candy, one of the things I craved most when I was pregnant with him.

I still have the cotton-candy-covered shoe laces. I miss him every day. I still struggle with not doing the things I now know I should have done, and I try to teach people every day to not make the same mistakes I did. Learn from me please. Let me tell you anything and everything that may help you or your loved one. It helps me to help you.

I just went to a celebration meeting of one of his best friends celebrating one year of sobriety on Sunday, and he said, “I think he may have died so I can live.”

Tracey Farrell, formerly Tracey Budd, is a Rocky Point resident who, since her son’s passing, educates others on drug abuse and assists in finding help for those who are struggling, or know someone who is struggling, with addiction. She is the founder of North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates and also a 2015 TBR Person of the Year.

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