2016's youngest opioid victim remembered by parents, community

A year after 17-year-old Olivia E. Roark died from a fentanyl overdose at a Groton motel, her family plans to attend what should have been her high school graduation and to launch a group dedicated to taking illegal drugs off the street.

The Griswold teen was the youngest of the 917 people who died in Connecticut last year from an opioid overdose

On May 29, 2016, five days after Olivia ran away from home, she was found unresponsive at the Flagship Inn & Suites. A man she had met set her up to serve as a prostitute and provided heroin, police said. The woman she was staying with used the drug with Olivia but did not call 911 for four hours after the teen passed out, police said.

Olivia's parents, Bob and Sherry Roark, went ahead with their planned move from Griswold to Myrtle Beach, S.C.   

But the Roarks traveled north this week so they can be at Griswold High School for what should have been Olivia's graduation ceremony. The Class of 2017 will mark her absence with an empty chair covered by a white sheet and red rose, and her brother, Robby, will accept an honorary diploma on her behalf.

Robby Roark, 16, is completing his Eagle Scout project this week. With help from his parents and friends, he is serving as the general contractor for construction of a storage shed at the Preston City Congregational Church, which the family attended. He will be dedicating it in his sister's name.

The Roarks also came to town to announce they are launching "Make Opioid Dealing Extinct," or MODE, an effort, Olivia's father said, to bring the same kind of attention to opioid dealers as Mothers Against Drunk Driving brought to drinking and driving.

"They go over and above with drunken driving arrests," Bob Roark said in a phone interview. "They give awards to people who make a lot of arrests. We want people competing with each other for this award."

The two people arrested in connection with his daughter's death, Ramon Gomez and Adele Bouthillier, have pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor and possession with intent to distribute heroin. They both await sentencing later this year. Though the family is frustrated that the sentencing hearings have been delayed for Gomez and Bouthillier, they are satisfied, thus far, with the criminal justice system.

"Until we see if the court is lenient or not, right now they're doing a good job," Bob Roark said. "But if either one of these people walk, they're not."

He said that if dealers are eliminated, society could concentrate on helping people who are addicted to heroin and other opioids.

"As long as there's a guy on the street selling it, we're going to have deaths," he said. "If we don't have to worry so much about saving lives, maybe we can figure out a way to treat people who are hooked. They're not going to go for help as long as they can buy it in the street."

A retired crane operator who was critically injured in the Kleen Energy Explosion in 2010 and who suffers from psoriatic arthritis, Bob Roark said he takes the prescription opioid hydrocodone for pain. He said he tried other medications, but they didn't work. He is well aware that opioids are highly addictive and that many people who can no longer get the pills through the medical system turn to the street for heroin, which these days is laced, more often than not, with deadly fentanyl.

"We talk about the addiction all the time when I go (to the doctor)," he said. "We talk about the danger for abuse."

His medical provider monitors his use of the drug by testing his urine and counting his supply of pills, Roark said.

The Roarks are working on the MODE project with Frank Maletz, a retired orthopedic surgeon, and retired educator and coach James M. "Jim" Spellman Jr. Both are involved in the opioid fight on several fronts and are members of The New London Opioid Action Team, a collaborative working to provide immediate access to treatment and services and whose initial efforts include a certification process for sober houses, recovery coaches to work with overdose patients at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and a syringe program in which users are given access to help and clean needles.

"This is not a vendetta or a legal effort to go against people," Maletz said of MODE. "It would allow Bob, Sherry and Robby Roark to have a mechanism that puts a positive spin on their grief and perhaps allows them to heal a little bit by a purposeful effort."

Additionally, Maletz said during a phone interview, MODE creates a movement, much like existing area groups Shine A Light on Heroin and Community Speaks Out, but focuses specifically on the "dealer/dealee" relationship and creates another "access point" for larger efforts, such as the opioid task force.

Spellman, who started SALOH to bring attention to the crisis when former students and then their children continued to die from overdoses, was Bob Roark's teacher and football coach at Robert E. Fitch Senior High School in Groton many years ago.

"I thought it was a great way to honor Olivia Elizabeth's memory," Spellman said of the MODE initiative. "I think anyone who knows the way things were before can comprehend the impact of MADD on reducing drunk driving. If MODE can come close to cutting down on opioid dealing, it will be a home run."

Maletz worked with the family to write a speech to launch MODE that Roark is thinking of reading to whoever gathers in the parking lot after Friday's graduation ceremony. He asked that others who want to become involved with MODE contact the family at Bobsherryr@yahoo.com.

The speech begins with a poem written in Japanese Haiku form, with three lines containing five, seven and five syllables:

Olivia E
Full life that shall never be
Light your legacy

k.florin@theday.com

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