Tournament offers hope after painful losses from addiction

Groton — For a few hours on Saturday, Debbie Shriner felt less alone.

Her daughter is an active drug user, and sometimes, Shriner feels like she's already grieving. "It's like you're waiting for them to die," said Shriner, a New London resident.

But she found comfort in being around people who might have felt the pain she does.

Shriner volunteered with Community Speaks Out at the Christopher Johns Memorial Sober Softball tournament, an event where hope was part of remembering the local young men and women who have died from heroin or other opioids.

Friends and family members organized the event to help end the stigma of addiction, raise money for treatment and pay for sober activities for those in recovery. Eight teams, wearing T-shirts bearing the names and ages of people who struggled with addiction, competed in softball games at Washington Park in Groton, as teammates cheered and people watching bought raffle tickets to support the cause.

Community Speaks Out President Tammy de la Cruz shared good news: The organization on Friday received its nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service, which will allow it to offer a tax deduction to those who donate to the group.

The organization has raised between $6,500 and $7,000 since January, and helped more than 100 people get into treatment, she said.  Now it will be able to raise even more, and to work toward creating more sober activities for those in recovery. De la Cruz envisions a sober softball league, sober bowling league, other sober events and even a recovery club — a place for people to play pool, other games and listen to music.

The organization also will be able to take advantage of other programs, like Charter Oak Credit Union's offer to provide $100,000 to match its members' charitable donations, she said.

The softball event offered a moving way to remember people, said Joe de la Cruz, also a founding member of Community Speaks Out. When someone died of an overdose five or six years ago, the family didn't include that in the obituary, he said. Now, people can say it and put their loved one's name on a jersey, he said.

"I think it's powerful for them," he said.

A team of eight girls dressed in pink, from St. Bernard School and Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School, played for 17-year-old Olivia Roark, who died of an overdose on May 29.

"It was beautiful," de la Cruz said.

Kathy Brandon sang the national anthem for her son, Michael T. Brandon of Norwich, who died at age 27 on Feb. 21.

"I hope he heard me," she said.

Behind the backstop of the field, under a tent, families displayed pictures of their sons, daughters and friends who died from addiction. Volunteers sold raffle tickets for 48 baskets of donated items to help raise money for the organization.

Brandon remembered her son. "My son was a wonderful boy," she said. "He was 180 pounds, he was beautiful. He was amazingly intelligent. But drugs don't care if you're smart." It makes her angry that some people don't realize addiction is a disease, she said. And the pain of him being gone physically hurts.

"Some days I literally get chest pains. It hurts," she said. But being at the event helped her, she said.

"I feel like maybe it'll save some other lives. My son's dead. I don't know how I'm going to live with it, truly. But maybe it'll save some other lives," she said.

"It helps to be with other people who know how I feel. It's like the club nobody wants to belong to," she said. "Sometimes people say, 'I have no idea what you're going through.' And I say, 'Thank God. I hope you never do.'"

Shriner has been to three events so far, including the softball tournament on Saturday. Her daughter lives in another state, and Shriner said she's afraid her daughter won't recover.

"It's with you every second," she said.

But she felt less isolated with her own thoughts Saturday, even if she doesn't know others around her that well yet. It still helped.

"I'm not alone," she said. "I know that some have that same ache and horrible feeling I have."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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