Sober softball tournament offers hope amidst mounting overdose deaths

Groton — Ashley Shaw Giordano stepped right up when Community Speaks Out asked her to organize this Saturday's second annual Christopher Johns Memorial Sober Softball tournament.

Her friend, Joey Gingerella, whom she met while both were in recovery from opioid addiction, started the tournament last year as a way to remove the stigma of addiction and honor those who have died from overdoses, including Christopher Johns, the son of Community Speaks Out founding member Lisa Cote Johns. Gingerella was shot to death in December 2016, leaving a void in the lives of his family and friends.

In the months that followed, Giordano lost more friends and acquaintances than someone who is only 23 should have to lose from fatal overdoses, the most recent being Kyleigh J. Manfredi, 20, on Sept. 13.

Through it all, Giordano stayed clean, celebrating 1 1/2 years on Wednesday. She said it helped to work with Community Speaks Out, a Groton-based non-profit organization founded by Gingerella's parents and others. Last year, at Joey Gingerella's request, she put together a team of people in recovery for the sober softball tournament. She saw what hope it gave to those who are struggling and how it comforted those who had lost loved ones.

"To me, it would be a disgrace to not carry on such a good event," Giordano said of the softball tournament. "I think it's important for the community to unite in such a dark time."

All proceeds will go to Community Speaks Out, which will use the funds to help those in recovery restart their lives.

Giordano has created ten teams, each with about 13 players, for this year's tournament, which will run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Washington Park in Groton. Like last year, the teams are named for area residents who died from overdoses.

"It's going to continue to be that way every year," Giordano said. "Unfortunately, it's easy to find new people to honor. It's not getting better."

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has estimated that more than 1,000 people would die from overdoses in 2017. As of June, there had already been 539 deaths.

While honoring those who died and helping to remove the stigma of addiction, Giordano and Community Speaks Out want to emphasize that there is hope. Two of this year's teams are made up of people in recovery.

Softball games will continue all day Saturday, and there will be side games, including cornhole and can jam. Gingerella's father, State Rep. Joe de La Cruz, D-Groton, will emcee the event. First responders who are on the front line of the opioid epidemic will be honored during a mid-day ceremony. There will be a food truck, raffle and a candlelight vigil to cap the day. 

Lisa Cote Johns, who this month is marking the third anniversary of her son Christopher's death on Oct. 2, 2014, said Giordano is doing an amazing job organizing the tournament and that she's honored the event will continue in memory of her son, Gingerella and others. Johns said she made an instant connection with Gingerella, who had just finished a treatment program for his addiction to pain pills when she met him, and who remained clean until he died so tragically. Witnesses said Gingerella was shot as he attempted to assist a woman involved in a domestic dispute in the parking lot of Ryan's Pub. His alleged killer is incarcerated while awaiting trial.  

"When I met him, he gave me a big hug and said, 'Don't worry. I'm going to be your boy. I got you, Momma,'' she remembered. "He wanted to do something special for me in honor of my son, and this is what he created."

Even as she continues what is likely to be a lifetime of grieving, Johns said it's important to let people know there is a community fighting for them to recover from addiction.

"We just have to embrace what we have and honor those who are suffering, those who have to wake up every day and struggle," Johns said. "We have to give them chances and hope and let them know there are people who will support them."


Teams at the Christopher Johns Memorial Softball Tournament are named for the following people:


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