WAYNE, NJ – A gathering of families and friends touched tragically by overdose held a candlelight vigil in front of Wayne Town Hall on Saturday to raise awareness of and provide support to those who have lost loved ones to drug overdose.

The Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse hosted the 2nd annual event along with along with Susan Schmidt to coincide with International Overdose Awareness Day.

Having lost her own daughter, Alyssa, in 2016, Schmidt reached out to the Wayne Alliance last year with the idea for the candlelight vigil.

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“My world is shattered ever since," the passing of her daughter at age 20, the still grieving mother said. "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.’

“I’m turning my tragedy into something positive, hoping that I save a life. Just one.” she said before managing a smile and finishing with "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 suggested to "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.”

Robbin Gulino, who heads Wayne Alliance said, “We greatly appreciate community members like Susan Schmidt who volunteer with the Wayne Alliance. We are blessed to have their help to bring awareness to the community."

Many people helped to organize the event and Gulino wanted to give credit to them all: “I would like to also share the names of committee members who volunteered in preparing the event: Councilwoman Aileen Rivera, Nancy Lindstrom (who spoke during the ceremony about her son, Timmy,) Dolores Mc Guire, Annmarie Valenza, Donna Andelora (who spoke of her son Joey), and, Element Entertainment who donated their services and provided the moving and uplifting music during the ceremony.

Along with Rivera, Mayor Chris Vergano and Passaic County Freeholder Director John Bartlett were among the dignitaries present at the solemn event.

Vergano opened the event, keeping his comments brief because of the gravity of the situation being discussed. 

“Usually, I’m a person that can talk 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.” 

“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," Vergano added. "We have to find a solution to this horrendous problem.”

Rivera took her turn at the microphone using part of her time to read from a citation prepared by Wayne's legisaltive delegation of Senator Kristen Corrado, Assemblyman Kevin Rooney and Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips. “The numbers here in New Jersey are staggering. More than 3,000 people lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2018 alone," the citation read. "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.”

“It also would have been great to have more parents of teen-aged children here,"  Andelora continued. "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.”

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

Challenging everyone gathered to tell their stories of loss, as a way to provide a lesson to others, Wayne Detective Sergeant Jay Celentano said that each of them have "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.” 

Lamenting the stigma around losing a loved on to overdose Bartlett reiterated that addiction is not a choice, and it's not isolated to any particular community.

"It’s a public health problem, not a personal moral failing," Bartlett said. "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.” 

The event, Bartlett said, was "incredibly uplifting and frustrating at the same time."

"It's 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.”

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,” Vergano said 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 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