WAYNE, NJ – A gathering of Wayne residents and other nearby towns held a candlelight vigil in front of Wayne Town Hall on Saturday night to help raise awareness and provide support to those who have lost loved ones to the devastating disease of addiction.

The Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse along with Susan Schmidt hosted the 2nd annual candlelight vigil on August 31, International Overdose Awareness Day. Mayor Chris Vergano, Councilwoman Aileen Rivera and Passaic County Freeholder Director John Bartlett were among the dignitaries present at the solemn event held on a quiet, late-summer evening in front of the entrance to the municipal complex.

Mayor Vergano opened the event but did not speak for long: “Usually, I’m a person that can talk for the next twenty-thirty minutes, but tonight I don’t have it in me,” he said. “It might be Labor Day weekend, and many people are away and celebrating, but there is nothing to celebrate today. I just want you to know that you are in our hearts, each and every one of you.” 

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Though they could not attend, New Jersey State Senator Kristen Corrado, Assemblyman Kevin Rooney and Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips signed a citation that was read by Rivera: “The numbers here in New Jersey are staggering. More than 3,000 people lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2018 alone. This epidemic-this crisis-does not discriminate. Everyone is susceptible to addiction and its devastation. Regardless of where we live, how much education we have or how much money we make, we are all at risk.”

“I would love to have seen more of the community members here whose lives had not been touched by addiction,” said Donna Andelora, who lost her son, Joseph to overdose in 2012. “Unless you become knowledgeable about addiction and it hasn’t hit you or your family, most don’t understand or know that addiction is a disease. They think it’s a choice.  The addictive brain is wired differently, and because of it, addiction is not a choice. We all need to be educated that no one is immune. It can hit any family.” Andelora went on to say, “I would love to have seen more parents of teen-aged children here. To come and see that this happens to the average middle-class family in Wayne. They don’t come because they believe that this happens to somebody else. Just as I did, many years ago. I think awareness is getting better, more people are learning about it and prevention is better than it used to be, but we have a long way to go.”

Jason Poloso, whose son, Don died from an overdose, echoed the remark: “Addiction is a horrible stigma that still exists, and it shouldn’t. Our son suffered from a disease.  It was not a choice.”

Wayne Detective Sergeant Jay Celentano challenged the group: “I’m going to ask you to do something tonight that I think can help us all very much.  Each and every one of you has experienced a tragedy. You have an incredible story of loss. And the best lesson that anyone can ever learn is from you. Tell your story to as many people as you can. Because you don’t know who you will prevent from going down a road that can lead to a tragic ending.” 

Schmidt reached out to the Wayne Alliance last year with the idea for the candlelight vigil. She lost her daughter, Alyssa in 2016 at the age of twenty. “My world is shattered ever since.  It took me a year to move, it took me a year to function, but I knew my daughter wouldn’t want me to die inside, so I came to the Alliance and said, ‘Let’s do a vigil.’ She went on to say: “I’m turning my tragedy into something positive, hoping that I save a life. Just one.” She finished with a smile: “But if I can save two, I’ll be happier.

When asked what to say to parents whose lives have not been touched by addiction, Schmidt provided this advice: “Keep an eye on them, keep an eye on their new friends, keep an eye on their habits. If there is any change in their behavior, if something is just a little different, then you should ask questions.”

Helping to prevent further overdose tragedies was a common theme for the evening, but the event served another purpose beyond awareness. “I hope it makes them feel less alone, less isolated,” said Bartlett. “There is a stigma to drug use, drug addiction, drug overdose. In spite of all that we know about how it crosses boundaries, how it’s a public health problem, not a personal moral failing. Yet, still, I imagine that there are places where it’s hard to talk about. But to come together with other parents that experienced it, it provides a sense of relief.”  Bartlett went on to say that the event was “…incredibly uplifting and frustrating at the same time.  Its uplifting because of the way people are coming together and making something positive out of their tragedy. But frustrating because, through our sheriff’s office, through our public health department, through our educational systems we are watching this epidemic continue. We are seeking ways to fight it and fighting it on all kinds of fronts, but there is always more to be done. The underlying tragedy is still there.”

In his address, Vergano said: “We have tried our best to arrest ourselves out of this situation, but it just doesn’t work. And we have committed the 116 men and women of our police department to do the best we can, but we have to find a better way. We have to find a solution to this horrendous problem.”

Candles were lit by those in attendance and were held aloft in a moment of silence, as tears flowed.

“We’re here for you and love each and every one of you and we will honor the memory of those that were lost and that we will never, ever give up hope,” said Vergano as the ceremony closed.

There is an abundance of support for parents on the issue of addiction.  The Wayne Alliance For The Prevention of Substance Abuse, led by Robbin Gulino, hold public meetings on the third Wednesday of every month at noon in the Health Room #2 in the municipal building. Their website is: www.waynetownship.com/alliance.

Wayne Alliance: 973-694-1800 x 3244

Wayne Police Department: 973-694-0600

Wayne Counseling and Family Services: 973-694-1234

Nar-Anon Family Groups: 800-477-6291

Addiction and Treatment Hotline: 844-276-2777

AA (Alcoholics Anonymous: 800-245-1377

NA (Narcotics Anonymous): 800-992-0401