CASA Night of Opioid Awareness: Hope and Support for Families


photo credit: Barbara James

August 31 is recognized as International Overdose Awareness Day, the world's largest annual campaign to raise awareness of overdose and provide resources, to remember those lost to an overdose, to acknowledge the grief of the family and friends left behind, and to provide hope that with proper support from the community and loved ones, those affected can receive treatment and live productive lives.

Clifton Against Substance Abuse (CASA), part of the Governor's Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (GCADA) presented its third annual candlelight vigil on Thursday night, August 31st at City Hall. Because purple is the color that symbolizes opioid addiction purple ribbons, as well as electric candles in purple mesh bags were given out. “Angel seeds," a cloth embedded with wildflower seeds, were also given to attendees for planting at home. As dusk turned into night, the candles lining the steps of City Hall cast a purplish glow, adding a faint light over those who spoke and sang.

The evening started with a brief prayer, the playing of “Amazing Grace” by the Passaic Drum and Bagpipes group, and a proclamation from Mayor Ray Grabowski honoring August 31, 2023 as Opioid Awareness Day in Clifton. In previous years speakers told tragic stories of losing loved ones to overdoses, but this year, the emphasis was on hope and advocacy for treatment of the disease and follow-through care. Mayor Grabowski noted that treatment is expensive and not everyone has insurance to pay for the care needed to ensure long-term success.

Former Clifton Councilman Joseph Cupoli spoke movingly of his family’s struggle with addiction. Ironically, his mother Joyce was one of the original members of CASA and has a background in mental health care. Julie-Anne Cupoli, CHS Class of 2010, was 17 when she tried marijuana and beer for the first time. It was in college that she started experimenting with opioids and she and her parents realized she needed professional help although at the time, Julie-Anne said she wasn’t yet ready. After years of tough love, relapses, and hard work at her inpatient and later outpatient therapy, she is now happily married, a mother, and pursuing a degree in Chinese medicine.

Former Clifton Councilman Joe Cupoli

Another speaker, Anthony, spoke of his first experience with prescription painkillers he received while in high school to treat an injury, a common entry to opioid abuse for many. He mentioned he’d been smoking weed and drinking beer before he turned 13, loved the feeling it gave him, and soon, began snorting drugs, including crack. Anthony was arrested for driving while under the influence but received probation instead of prison if he successfully passed rehabilitation classes. However, “getting high became my obsession” and he added that at age 32 he became estranged from loved ones when he refused to admit he had a problem or get help. He started stealing to pay for his habit, finally realizing he was “so tired” and needed help. Anthony entered a treatment plan in California and went through withdrawals while at the airport and on the plane. He’s been straight and sober for ten years and has made it a mission to help others as he was helped. “Treatment is what you make of it," he said, “you have to be honest with yourself and loved ones; you don’t want to end up being a statistic.”

Speaker Anthony talked about his personal struggles and his work to remain drug-free.

Another speaker, Mary Ann, told of her battle with alcoholism and how, unknown to her, her brother was addicted to Fentanyl and died of an accidental overdose. “I could not do this to my parents. It was a wake-up call that saved me.”

School Superintendent Danny Robertozzi thanked the speakers, CASA, Clifton Police, and all those involved with educating students starting at a very young age about the effects of drugs and for offering them resources.

Health Educator Erica Shyrocky from the Clifton Health Department spoke of the partnerships the city has with other groups throughout the state and talked about the training staffers received on drug awareness as well as on resources to offer the residents. Sergeant Gary Giardina of the Clifton Community Policing Division reiterated that users, or their friends, had to call 911 in case of overdoses and that they would not be arrested or sent to jail; instead, they would be helped. “This doesn’t mean we won’t go after drug dealers; rest assured we will do whatever we can to put them behind bars where they belong. But if you’re in trouble, please call us to help, please don’t be afraid to reach out.”

Len Leuci spoke about grief and sorrow and urged anyone dealing with loss to contact his support group, Grief Share, for resources.

Michelle Petrasek on the piano and singer Katelyn Lapczynski teamed up on a haunting version of  Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” a song of support, hope, and love.

Vocal coach and pianist Michelle Petrasek and singer Katelyn Lapczynski

Resident Steve Goldberg talked about friends who recently died of overdoses and then offered a prayer for health and recovery from illness called the “Mi Shebeirach." The evening ended with a beautiful rendition of "Amazing Grace" by the Saint Andrew’s choir.

Per the US Drug Enforcement Agency and US Centers for Disease Control, Fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs and continues to be the leading cause of death among young people. One in seven Americans reports experiencing a substance use disorder. There is not one single driving factor that leads to addiction. Some people may use drugs to help cope with stress, trauma, or to help with mental health issues. Some may even develop opioid use disorder after misusing opioids they are prescribed by doctors. In any case, using drugs over time makes it easier to become addicted.

The message of the night was that addiction can happen to anyone, regardless of circumstances. It’s never too late to ask for help and there’s never a reason to give up hope.

CASA’s mission is to “turn the City of Clifton into a community that nurtures youth and families by engaging community members in the process of ongoing community problem solving…focused on underage drinking and the misuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs…by organizing and coordinating efforts of the schools, police force, and other organizations.”

CASA meetings are held in Clifton City Hall’s health department on the last Tuesday of every month. Please contact CASA President Tom Whittles at 973-800-2938 for more information.

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