By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Flanked by black balloons, a sober reminder of the lives taken by the opioid crisis, the Rev. Kathryn King led Mayor Nancy R. Rossi and city and state officials in a prayer service March 6 for West Haven’s victims of drug addiction.
During the solemn ceremony, which marked the city’s observance of Black Balloon Day, King, pastor of the First Congregational Church of West Haven, told the group of leaders gathered on the steps of City Hall that the solution to the opioid epidemic is not easy.
“It is not a sprint; it will take a village in its truest way” to overcome the opioid crisis, said King, who, in addition to Rossi and her aide, Ruth G. Torres, was joined by state Reps. Charles J. Ferraro, R-West Haven, and Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, City Clerk Deborah Collins, Health Director Maureen B. Lillis, City Council Minority Leader Richard DePalma, R-at large, and former council Chairman Nicholas A. Pascale, D-1.
Leading up to Black Balloon Day, Rossi called on all residents who have been affected by drug addiction, including pain-reducing opioid medications, to hang a black balloon in front of their homes.
Rossi, who lost a dear friend to addiction, recently pledged West Haven’s commitment to recognizing the special day after its co-founder, Diane Hurley, of Peabody, Massachusetts, reached out to the mayor seeking the city’s participation. Hurley’s daughter, Lauren Hurley, is the other co-founder.
Rossi said West Haven’s participation was aimed at “shining a light on how the national public health crisis of opioid addiction affects us locally.”
“It affects everybody,” Rossi said, “and I urge our state officials to push for the necessary legislation or administrative policy to mandate that opioid overdoses are added to the list of conditions that must be reported to public health officials. Our health departments document cases of chicken pox, food poisoning and West Nile virus, for example, but we don’t have real-time data on opioid and other overdoses.”
At the request of Diane Hurley, city officials hung a black balloon on the steps of City Hall for each resident who has died of opioids.
According to statistics provided by Lillis, 23 residents died of opioids in 2017.
Lillis said West Haven is ranked ninth among the Connecticut cities and towns with the highest number of people killed by overdoses last year. Hartford is ranked first, with 58 deaths, followed by Bridgeport, 51; Waterbury, 44; New Haven, 41; Meriden 36; New Britain, 36; Norwich, 34; Bristol, 23; and Manchester, 19.
The 15-minute service was immediately followed by the tolling of the church bells on the nearby Green in honor of the victims.
“Addiction doesn’t discriminate; it impacts all races, religions, genders and income levels,” Borer said. “We’re all in this together in our fight to eradicate this terrible disease, which rips through families and, in many cases, causes deaths.”
She added: “Our legislation last year was a significant step in the right direction, and we’re going to continue to build on that with even stronger legislation this year. And we won’t stop there.”
Lauren Hurley’s mission began March 6, 2016, after her brother-in-law, Greg Tremblay, a father of four, died of a drug overdose a year earlier.
Hurley’s brother, Sean Hurley, was also a drug addict but has been clean for more than a year.
In the wake of the family’s tragedy, she and her mother have joined forces in the war on drugs.