PHOENIX, NY – The small but mighty Phoenix community came together to address the devastating heroin epidemic hitting all over the nation, even in quiet, cozy neighborhoods like their own.
H.O.P.E, Heroin Opioid Prevention Education, hosted a community forum at J.C. Birdlebough High School complete with an agency expo, multiple keynote speakers, and a diverse panel of specialists with a wide range in background and expertise to answer questions from the public.
The event brought profound knowledge, addiction education, personal experience and a glimmer of hope to the community, much like the overall goal of the newly formed H.O.P.E organization.
Savannah Jaquay organized H.O.P.E after her best friend passed away in January from a heroin overdose, succumbing to years of struggling with addiction.
“I couldn’t stand idle anymore, I wanted to make a difference in my community. I am tired of seeing people dying and struggling with addiction, even in our own backyards” group founder, Jaquay said.
And thus began the organization of a new support group aimed at providing exactly what it’s named for – hope.
After officially getting started in mid-March, H.O.P.E showcased their dominant presence to the community with a public forum thoroughly addressing the deadly nationwide heroin epidemic.
The event started with an agency expo that featured more than 15 local agencies for substance abuse in Oswego and surrounding counties.
The expo included treatment agencies such as County of Oswego Council on Alcoholism and Addiction (COCOAA), ACR Health, and Crouse Hospital Dependency Treatment Services, to name a few, and also featured support groups for addicts or those who love an addict including the VOW Foundation, Prevention Network, Fight the Darkness Suicide Awareness Group, and Professional Counseling Services, among others.
Guests were able to walk through the school’s gymnasium lined with tables for each agency to provide more information on the services they offer before the crowd spilled into the auditorium to hear from a plethora of speakers relative to all aspects of the lethal heroin epidemic.
The speakers included representatives from law enforcement, medical professionals, treatment providers, caseworkers, the pharmaceutical industry, recovering addicts, loved ones of deceased addicts and even a former drug dealer, all bringing immense knowledge teamed with personal experience to the crowd.
Representatives from the medical community included Dr. Bill Hines, Medical Director at Professional Counseling Services who addressed the physiological effects of heroin on the brain as well as Dr. Jeanna Marraffa, Clinical Director at Upstate Poison Center addressing the warning signs and risk factors of addiction.
Paul Riker, Clinical Director of the Outpatient Program at Professional Counseling Services spoke to the audience regarding treatment options for addiction which then transitioned into the conversation on heroin addiction’s most commonly used treatment, Suboxone which was addressed by pharmacist, Dave Dingman.
Natasha, Bryan and Matthew all courageously addressed the faces in the crowd, sharing their stories from addiction to sobriety and all the struggles, self-control and support it takes daily to maintain sobriety. All different stories with one prevailing message, there is hope for everyone, even through the darkest days.
While all stories of addiction create heartache for the addict themselves, often times it’s family and friends of an addict that feel the most recourse from their loved one’s actions.
Lindsay Lavigne from Oswego County Department of Social Services informed the crowd of the harsh reality that addiction’s destruction has all throughout the county.
Lavigne shed light into the amount of drug use that devastates local homes, stating that 44% of all open cases at Oswego County DSS are substance abuse related.
“This is heartbreaking. I’ve seen families break apart, I’ve seen them crumble. But, I’ve also seen them rebuild,” she said, spreading hope for recovery as she struggled through her own overwhelming emotion.
Law enforcement representatives were also able to shed light on the destruction of addiction on individuals and families that they see all too often in their line of work.
As one of three district attorney’s in NYS that also acts as the county coroner, Oswego County D.A. Greg Oakes has seen the impact of addiction on families and individual lives daily, he said.
Much like Lavigne addressed the issue of insurance posing a hindrance for addicts seeking treatment as most times they are not covered for full inpatient treatment, Oakes addressed the issue addicts face when they are treated only as criminals and not as addicts.
“Addiction is every bit a public safety concern as it is a public health concern. We are never going to arrest our way out of this issue,” he said. “Incarceration can not end addiction.”
Instead, Oakes prefers the proactive approach utilized in Oswego County through the D.A.’s office, the successful drug treatment program offered to those who are arrested for a felony level crime with a connection to addiction.
In summary, the offender submits a guilty plea to one felony and one misdemeanor charge with the understanding that the felony charge will be vacated upon successful completion of the one year drug treatment program and the offender will then go on with one misdemeanor charge to complete probation for three following years. If the program is not successfully completed, the offender is sentenced to the felony charge always punishable with state prison.
Oakes said this has been a far better tool to stop future use than any incarceration sentence.
Phoenix Police Chief, Marty Nerber and Narcotics Detective with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department, Shane LaVigne discussed their recent arrest, ultimately interfering a dealer’s attempt to bring 4 ounces of heroin into the Phoenix community.
LaVigne explained that 4 ounces of heroin is enough for 3500 individual doses, mostly all of which was admittedly intended to be sold throughout the small village of Phoenix.
“That should serve as an eye-opener, this is happening here,” he said.
All three law enforcement representatives, while still agreeing to continue to aggressively target the substance abuse related crime in the area, express concern for those who live in fear of prosecution.
Oakes informed the crowd of the “Good Samaritan law” which offers protection from prosecution for anyone who reaches out for medical treatment for themselves or another individual with reasonable belief that they are in danger.
Meaning, a person will not face prosecution for illegal drug use or possession if they call for medical treatment for an overdose or drug related health emergency, unless they fall into specific exceptions.
“I’d rather have someone ‘get away’ with doing drugs, than have to be there as coroner and pronounce them dead,” he said.
Moderator for the event, Devin Nelepovitz was no stranger to living in fear of law enforcement as he admittedly spent much of his formative years selling drugs in the very community he was raised in.
After being introduced to drugs at a very young age, Nelepovitz realized he could easily support his own habit by selling drugs, which then turned to making quite a profit.
Understanding how the general public responds to drug dealers, he questioned, “What makes a person like me?” To which he answered, “A community not noticing.”
He recalled the ease with which he walked the halls years ago of the very high school he now stood in and the streets of the village he was a product of, selling drugs to people he never would have expected.
As Nelepovitz now looks at himself and no longer sees a person he hates, but instead a sober, educated man whose growth has been nothing short of exponential, he urged the crowd to take away one simple message – “the power of ‘NO’.”
The power of ‘no’, while it seems so effortless, to those who know or love an addict, they are all too aware of how one moment of weakness can keep that powerful word from being uttered.
H.O.P.E founder, Savannah Jaquay tearfully told the story of her best friend, Tom Pokalsky, honoring his life that was ended far too soon from a heroin overdose in January of 2016.
She remembered Tom, who he was as a person and not an addict. A strong, confident, smart, charismatic young man whose smile could light up a room, she described. “Tom is the face of addiction, but that is not his identity,” she said. “It can happen to anyone, heroin has no prejudice.”
The same message was delivered from Deanna Axe, recalling the tragic story of her 24-year-old daughter, Morgan, whose story shook the Phoenix community when she used one fatal dose of heroin in one instant of weakness after months of strength and sobriety while pregnant with her unborn son.
“Addiction is a disease, not a lack of morals. My concern is not with your judgments, but rather that you may be sitting here in denial of this epidemic that is killing an entire generation. Morgan was no different than any child in this auditorium. Heroin has no mercy,” she said.
Both stories with the end result of a devastating loss of precious life, but both stories carried on into messages from loved ones that this destruction doesn’t have to continue.
“I stand here broken, but also hopeful,” Axe said.
“I stand here to ask you, to please choose hope,” Jaquay pleaded with the crowd, promising that there are resources available in almost every neighborhood, now even in Phoenix through H.O.P.E, who will take you as you are with no judgment and give you the tools needed to not become the next statistic.
“Tom may have died of a heroin overdose, but his legacy is of hope,” she said. “Hold onto hope.”