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Addicts, family members relay struggles with drug addiction

Members of the East Brunswick Elks lodge hosted EB Cares on May 5 to bring attention to drug abuse and prevention.

EAST BRUNSWICK – In a move aimed at providing drug prevention education and overdose awareness to residents, East Brunswick Elks Lodge No. 2370 co-sponsored  an “EB Cares” event.

More than 80 residents attended the event on May 5 at the East Brunswick Community Arts Center. EB Cares was co-sponsored by the Elks and the East Brunswick Alliance for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, a group of volunteers that plans and develops programs to educate residents. The alliance provides school programs in the sixth and seventh grades, alliance member John Regan said.

“The parents have to know what the issue is, they have to know what to look for, they have to know they can say to their doctor, ‘No, I don’t want an opioid for my kid.’ A lot of these kids are injured … in a car accident, playing a sport, or hurting themselves,” alliance Coordinator Jennifer Stetson said. “This is our cause, this is what we do, so when [the Elks] came to us and they said they wanted to do this program … we absolutely wanted to help because if we save one life today it’s worth it.” 

More than a dozen health organizations and businesses provided guests with information pertaining to health services, drug prevention and resources.

Guests were taught how to administer the anti-overdose drug Narcan by the Overdose Prevention Agency Director of Community Outreach and Training Development Heidi Modjeski.

East Brunswick Mayor Brad Cohen said no parent should ever have to bury a child, but that has become a reality.

“It’s an aberration and it needs to be cured. … I am hoping all of the people here today are part of this massive effort. It’s not an East Brunswick problem, it’s not a [state] problem, this is a United States problem and we are going to need to put our heads together with the best minds possible,” he said. 

The band Tommy and Friends with guest singer Kathleen Elle sang during the event. Members of Boy Scout Troop 223 led the Pledge of Allegiance. 

Representing the East Brunswick Police Department Community Policing Unit, patrolmen Reggie Wright and Jason Fama operated the drunk-buster obstacle course where participants wore alcohol impairment simulation goggles and tried to navigate the course.

Guest speakers offered different perspectives pertaining to drug addiction and the opioid crisis.

“I am here today just to offer hope to anyone who feels like there is not going to be a tomorrow. I am here to represent a light born in the defeat of darkness and to let everyone know there is a tomorrow and there is a day after that,” said Vanessa Vitolo, community outreach coordinator and goodwill ambassador from Victory Bay Recovery Center, and a former addict.

Michelle Golba-Norek, a registered nurse and adjunct professor at New Jersey City University and Kean University, has more than 30 years of experience in the nursing field. 

“Over the past two years, we have been going out on calls for unresponsive patients that end up being heroin overdoses, pain medication overdoses [and] different kinds of overdoses. All walks of life, all socioeconomic statuses, all sexes, it doesn’t matter,” Golba-Norek said.

Golba-Norek said everyone in the family needs help. Families should look for resources and get trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).  

“There are programs out there. You can’t make anybody go, but you can encourage them [and] you can encourage the family,” Golba-Norek said. “Get trained in (the use of) Narcan. Families carrying Narcan have actually saved lives and [it has] been a rude awakening for the person who has overdosed, because it is their family that saved them. When strangers come in (to revive a person), it is a little bit different than when your family saves you.”

East Brunswick Department of Recreation, Parks and Community Services employee Karen Cohen – no relation to the mayor – spoke about her son, who is battling drug addiction. Karen Cohen said her son is a heroin addict and was arrested in February.

“His life was saved that night. The officers who made that arrest saved (my son’s) life. He was shooting 15 bags of heroin a day and had he not been arrested. I believe it would have only been a matter of time until he overdosed,” Karen Cohen said.     

Her son was eventually assigned to the New Jersey Drug Court program.

“I hope he can find a job when he gets out. He had fabulous jobs, he owned his own business and he lost everything. … Mostly though I pray that my son and my best friend finds the courage to fight this addiction,” Karen Cohen said.

Resident Deborah Romancino said her daughter, Tara, died from a Fentanyl overdose. She said she has decided to make it her life’s work to speak about overdose awareness and her daughter’s story.  

Romancino said about six months ago she found her daughter face down in the bathroom, dead from an overdose. She had shot up six bags of pure Fentanyl, which killed her.

“After you are done selling your clothes and your shoes, you sell your body, that is how strong this drug is. Nobody is immune and I know a lot of parents like to say, ‘That’s crazy, that will never happen.’ [The] three most dangerous words are ‘not my kid,’ ” Romancino said. 

Romancino said parents should look at their children’s social media and phones, and know where they are and know who their friends are.

“We have to keep fighting, easing the stigma. My daughter grew up in a great home, she was a basketball player for East Brunswick [and a] soccer player. She had college coaches come to the house and it made no difference. … Keep your eyes open. … Let’s win this war, let’s keep our minds open and try to help each other,” Romancino said. 

Vitolo said she came from a good family and grew up in southern New Jersey. She attended a private high school, went to college with scholarships, and played sports throughout her life.

“Very quickly a prescription for opioid painkillers became an addiction to heroin. I was living on the streets of Atlantic City and ended up in jail. I became a Drug Court client and through Drug Court I was able to receive treatment,” Vitolo said. “I don’t focus so much on the things that happened while I was in active addiction, because the life I have led since then has been more purposeful than all the years leading up to that.”

Vitolo said she will be sober for four years on Aug. 5.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.

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