LINWOOD — If there’s one thing people in Atlantic County are passionate about, it’s promoting discussion and action on the state’s addiction epidemic.
More than 150 people filed into the auditorium at Mainland Regional High School on Thursday night to rally around initiatives and plans focused on how to prevent, treat and support the recovery efforts of people addicted to opioid prescriptions, heroin and other substances.
“I believe we’ve found another level in recovery after treatment,” said Ted Khoury, a community advocate who is in long-term recovery from alcoholism. “We have people doing some great things out there. We have a problem, we just need more resources.”
The public event, “A Time for Action, A Reason for Hope,” was put together by Recovery Force of Atlantic County, a nonprofit recovery community organization, and led by Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler, who was elected in November.
The forum brought together local and national leaders with backgrounds in law enforcement and addiction treatment and recovery, as well as people in long-term recovery from opioid, heroin and alcohol addictions, to talk about what more Atlantic County can do to address addiction.
State experts estimate 2016 overdose deaths eclipsed 2015’s toll of 1,587. Most died from taking heroin or prescription opioids, data from the state Medical Examiner’s Office show, and deaths related to the use of fentanyl are on the rise.
Atlantic County had 85 drug-related overdose deaths in 2015, but officials said the numbers are likely higher.
Scheffler said he was among the many who judged addiction before it affected his own family.
“Everybody has been touched, including my family, and it changed my life,” he said. “We need an army of recovery to move forward.”
As sheriff, he wants to focus on recovery efforts in Atlantic County, including pushing a social platform that deals with mental health and addiction and getting more people into treatment before they are arrested.
Scheffler also said he wants to work to break down the stigma surrounding those in addiction that exists among law enforcement officers and officials.
Recovery Force founder and CEO Bob Catalano Jr. said the treatment services and recovery efforts work, but some gaps in remain.
“We have to stop blaming people who relapse when we have a system that doesn’t support them,” he said.
As someone in recovery himself, Catalano said the recovery community needs to grow so people are able to stand up and not feel ashamed to say they are in recovery.
Catalano started the Atlantic County-based organization a year and a half after his younger brother, Dennis Catalano, 45, of Atlantic City, died of an overdose Nov. 3, 2013. He left behind a young son and daughter.
Recovery Force was selected as one of four recovery community organizations nationwide to participate in a pilot program called Building Strength through Mentorship, run by Faces and Voices of Recovery and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Vanessa Vitolo called the rally a call to arms and an event that touched home to her roots growing up in Absecon. After graduating from college, Vitolo was prescribed opioid painkillers for an injury. It eventually spiraled into a heroin addiction.
After graduating from the state’s drug court program, Vitolo has more than three years of sobriety, a job as a recovery advocate and is involved in the state’s REACHNJ campaign.
“Recovery is possible. I’m living proof of that,” she said. “The time is now.”
Other speakers and presenters at the rally included Tracy Smith, president and owner of Speakers for Change, Jesse Heffernan, outreach coordinator at the national Faces of Recovery organization, Brian Mooney, executive director of Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, Patrick Roff, director of peer recovery services for CARES-Morris County, and Jennifer Hansen, founder and CEO of the Hansen Foundation.
Hansen talked about going from a heroin addiction spanning several years, states and treatment centers to being 21 years sober and creating a detox, treatment, counseling and recovery organization based in Atlantic County.
“We really want to mobilize a recovery force that helps people,” she said. “What do you need and how can we help you get there?”