Griswold vigil unites those touched by addiction

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Editor's note: At the request of Griswold Youth Center supervisor Ricky Bevis, the last names of youths under the age of 18 have been withheld.

Griswold — A group of youths who sat on a bench behind the gazebo at Veterans Memorial Park in Jewett City on Thursday evening, waiting for a candlelight vigil to begin, said they had seen the ravages of opioid addiction firsthand.

"My mom passed away from opiate pills mixed with alcohol when I was 8," said 19-year-old Summer Maurer.

 "My cousin's in jail because of heroin," said 18-year-old Sara Hill.

"My aunt's best friend died on May 28 from a heroin overdose," said Stormiee, 13.

The teens said they live in Jewett City, where drug addiction is prevalant, and that they stick together like family.

The lastest loss — 17-year-old Olivia Roark over Memorial Day weekend — is a fresh wound here, and two other young people have died of fatal overdoses within town limits since Jan. 1.

About 200 people attended the vigil, huddling together with candles, lighters or cellphones as eight clergy members from area churches called upon God to help with the scourge that steadily has been taking and ruining lives for the past few years.

Olivia Roark's father, Bob Roark, was front and center with his family.

Since his daughter died on May 29 of an apparent heroin overdose, he said his emotions have ranged from outrage at what happened  to her — she had been taken to a Groton motel by a career criminal to work as a prostitute, according to police — to grief so heavy he can't speak.

On April 9, 23-year-old town resident Tyler S. Brehler died from "acute intoxication due to the combined effects of heroin and fentanyl," according to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

"We've been hit pretty hard," Griswold First Selectman Kevin Skulczyk said earlier Thursday in a phone interview. "We were right there in the forefront of the whole thing."

Skulczyk said heroin is coming into the borough of Jewett City and the surrounding suburban/rural town of Griswold from many different sources, including Hartford, Willimantic and Providence.

Lately, he said, there have been a lot of Massachusetts license plates in town.

In October 2014, a week after state police started carrying Narcan, Trooper Steven Gardner became the first state policeman to save a life by administering the opiate reversal drug Narcan to a 40-year-old man in Griswold.

Several more overdose incidents occurred, and Public Safety Commissioner Dora B. Schriro started paying attention to the community, approving the formation of the Jewett City Narcotics Suppression Team, which includes two undercover officers and is focused on stifling the local drug trade.

In 2015, community leaders from different sectors came together to form Griswold PRIDE (Partnership to Reduce the Influence of Drugs for Everyone), which is working to make the town "as drug free as possible" through outreach programs.

PRIDE, which is modeled after a similar program in Putnam, raised money to help fund a narcotics-detection dog working out of the Troop E barracks.  

The town received $80,000 from the Department of Justice for prevention programming, according to Skulczyk, and community leaders have been working "in lockstep" with local schools.

"We certainly want to engage with the young people as quick as we can," he said. "These are the next generation that are going to be out there tempting fate with this unbeieveable heroin epidemic that's going on. We're very much concerned about the entire community but, on my list, the young people are my priority and that's been the focus."

Ricky Bevis, a senior citizen and supervisor at the Griswold Youth Center, said the kids in town are "beautiful souls" and that the police, school system and others are doing their best to make things right.

Bevis said the problem is not with small town America, but with a government that allows the drugs to flow into the country from over the border and a judicial system that does not appropriately punish repeat drug offenders.

"These kids are the innocents, who don't know," Bevis said. "They're so naive and so vulnerable. They're prime targets of the drug dealers, the runners, the coyotes."

While the focus turned to Griswold this week, the heroin epidemic has touched every town in the region, and Skulczyk and New London Mayor Michael Passero are co-chairing the recently formed Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments Regional Heroin Response Committee.

Also attending Thursday's vigil were members of Community Speaks Out, a Groton-based nonprofit organization that has guided 50 people into treatment for opioid addiction since last fall.

Community Speaks Out representatives also have spoken at numerous schools in the area. The group last month took part in a PRIDE forum in Griswold, entitled "Opiates: A Big Problem in a Small Town."

Amid the tragedy, there is hope.

"I think we are making progress," said Miranda Nagle, PRIDE coordinator. "We've definitely created awareness of the issue. Just talking about the problem helps."

Federal funding to fight the epidemic also appears to be on its way.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., announced Thursday that the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved billions of dollars in grants for substance abuse prevention and treatment, including a $1.9 billion block grant to states for prevention, treatment, recovery support and other services and $26 million in overdose-prevention devices and training.

Some of Jewett City's kids said they have received the message.

"We've been losing our friends lately," said 15-year-old Mason. "From seeing all my friends dying from drugs, I don't want to touch them."

John, 13, who said his father is in prison for serious crimes related to drug use, said "Drugs, they ruin lives."

k.florin@theday.com

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