New Canaan overdose Awareness Day Vigil draws massive crowd, support
NEW CANAAN — When the New Canaan Parent Support Group and the New Canaan Community Fund began preparing for their first Overdose Awareness Day Vigil, they expected about 300 people would show up.
Instead, over 600 people turned out to the pop-up park in downtown New Canaan, so many the group ran out of candles during the candlelight part of the vigil.
The event, the first of its kind, drew people from all over Connecticut and New York. According to Paul Reinhardt, founder of the New Canaan Parent Support Group, the event was meant to help people come together as a community to discuss addiction, mental health and healing, as well as remember those who lost their lives to addiction.
Team Orange, a group of community volunteers, helped host the event and spent a portion of the night engaging community members who attended. They stood out from the crowd by wearing bright orange T-shirts to identify themselves as active team members and hosts throughout the night.
“If this is sad or painful for you, they’re here for emotional and spiritual support,” Team Orange member and addiction clinician John Hamilton told the crowd during his address.
“New Canaan is no different from any other community in terms of tragedy,” he said. “Everyone thought it would be great to join forces. ... There’s a lot to do with stigma, fear and shame and we want to give people that sense of hope. Sometimes it takes one person to give that glimmer.”
The orange T-shirts, along with the orange ribbons on the sign advertising the event and live music from Quiet Giant, drew passersby in as they wandered down the shops lining the adjacent Elm Street.
Visitors got a chance to visit the Wall of Remembrance, which was covered in photos of those struggling with addiction. Their loved ones left them messages, written in black marker on bright-orange heart stickers. Many of the people featured on the wall lost their lives to fatal overdoses. According to Hamilton, there were 917 fatal overdoses in Connecticut last year, a number projected to increase by 18 percent in 2017.
Reinhardt was one of three speakers who spoke of personal struggles with addiction and a loved one he lost to the disease. Reinhardt shared a story about a hockey game won by his son, Evan, who died of an overdose in 2015. Reinhardt recalled his son, who was in elementary school at the time, wanting to eat ice cream out of his hockey trophy.
“That was my bud,” he said. “That was my Evan from heaven. I’ll always remember that.”
Reinhardt said there was no shame in his son’s struggles, a sentiment echoed by members of the recovery community in the crowd.
Karen and Richard King, Trumbull residents who previously lived in New Canaan, said they’re proud of their respective recoveries from drug and alcohol addictions. The couple was one of many members of the crowd in recovery. Overall, the recovery community at the event represented a composite 1,000 years of substance-free living.
“What brings us here is it has to end,” Karen King said. “It’s a disease, not a moral failing. Those in recovery need to come out and let people know there’s hope. We’re here to break the silence and say all people can have the disease of addiction.”
“I’ve gotten hope from a lot of sources,” said Richard King, who has been in recovery over 34 years. “Many groups offer help. Being a person in recovery, it’s important to reach out to other people.”
King, who has benefited from Alcoholics Anonymous, said helping other people keeps him in recovery.
“The anonymity part is not meant to prevent you from helping other people,” he said.
The evening concluded with a musical performance of “Amazing Grace” as different community organizations pledged to help the battle against addiction under candlelight of the over 600 people in attendance. The normally bustling downtown New Canaan turned silent, save for the sound of a guitar and a pledge taken by all in attendance, that they would do what they can to help combat the disease in the community and in those around them.