By Michael Hill
NJTV honored some heroes in the fight against New Jersey’s heroin epidemic, among them NJ Advance Media’s Stephen Stirling — a recovering alcoholic and the reporter of the newspaper company’s heralded series “Herointown.” In receiving the Everyday Heroes Communication Award, Stirling offered a sobering personal account of losing a friend who was in recovery.
“The line between life and death, recovery and death, is that razor thin even with support systems,” he said.
Paul Ressler lost his son to a heroin overdose in 2010. Today, Ressler is president and CEO of TOPAC — The Overdose Prevention Agency Corporation. He received the Everyday Heroes Community Organization Award.
“We got to make up for 20 years of failure on adults, failure to recognize this disease,” Ressler said.
The Prevention Award went to Angelo Valente of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey. The Health Award to Dr. Christopher Johnston of Endeavor House. The Inspiration Award to Patty DiRenzo. A surprise award went to writer Alicia Cook.
The Innovator Award went to Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato.
“The one thing we have to learn is that we have to partnership up together,” Coronato said.
The Ocean County prosecutor said even with all the attention, all the effort given to the epidemic, the number of overdose deaths continues to climb.
He said, “2015 was our worst year, it went up to 118. Unfortunately, 2016 in Ocean County we’re now at 203. We have about seven more pending, so we’re really there. Unfortunately, if I start looking at my numbers for 2017 it looks like the number 300 is probably going to happen this very year and that really is because of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.”
The Christie administration’s Commissioner of Human Services Elizabeth Connelly spoke about the impact of the governor’s commitment to battling the epidemic.
“That support from the top down is critical,” she said.
“A new specific curriculum in every school on opioids,” Christie said.
When the governor uttered those words, Rutgers’ Art Tomie — author of “The Tail of the Raccoon: Secrets of Addiction” about prevention — was already collaborating with the East Mountain School at the Carrier Clinic.
“They have about 120 young people, many of whom are ward to the court because their parents are drug addicts. They want to take the raccoon stories and give it to those kids and they want to find out if they can reduce the risk, because they’re high risk. So they want to develop evidence that’s documented of the effectiveness of the raccoon story,” Tomie said.
The work of so many demonstrates New Jersey’s multi-prong attack on an epidemic that seems to be getting worse despite so many best efforts.
“Please don’t lose hope,” Coronato said.