'Thank you for doing this': Dozens turn out at Pittsburgh rally to raise awareness of addiction
September 1, 2015 12:00 AM
People gather hand-in-hand in prayer Monday outside the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Downtown, to mark Overdose Awareness Day.
Lilian McHugh, center, cries for her grandson, Steven Akerly, 25, pictured, who was found dead from an overdose in August. She attended a rally Downtown Monday as part of Overdose Awareness Day.
People gather in prayer outside the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Downtown, to mark Overdose Awareness Day.
Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, offers a blessing to Niedra Williams who attended a prayer service outside the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Downtown, to mark Overdose Awareness Day. Williams works at the Tadiso methadone clinic.
By Dan Majors and Lexi Belculfine / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Marla Mastermonico Conley, one of the organizers of the Fed Up rally in Market Square, was setting some addiction-awareness literature on a table Monday evening when she was approached by a Downtown businessman. His name was “Scott” and he wanted to give her a hug.
“He started crying,” said Ms. Conley of Penn Hills, whose son is a recovering heroin addict. “He said, ’Thank you so much for doing this.’ I said, ’Scott, did you lose somebody?’ And he said, ‘Just myself.’”
Dozens of people, including Mayor Bill Peduto, gathered for the event to call attention to International Overdose Awareness Day, aimed at directing resources away from punishing addicts and into helping them.
“Stricter penalties need to be imposed on drug dealers,” said Ms. Conley, who heads a local chapter of The Addict’s Mom. “And we need more treatment facilities. A lot of these kids want help, but they can’t get it because there’s no treatment facilities available or they don’t have insurance.”
Other groups participating in the event were Message Carriers of Pennsylvania, Prevention Point Pittsburgh, and Not One More. The volunteers, many of whom have friends and family members who are addicts, passed out pamphlets and sought signatures for a national petition. But the most important thing they did was speak out.
“We have to stop treating addicts like criminals,” said Laura Propst, president of Not One More. “We have to shatter the stigma and get them the treatment they need. Right now, they’re being sent back out into the streets where they’re most vulnerable, and the pharmaceutical companies are making billions.”
“I’m here to tell you and tell those that are suffering that it’s a problem that we need to address,” Mr. Peduto said. “There’s nothing negative about it. It’s simply something that, if we work together, and we change some rules … we’ll be able to save lives.
“[Addiction] affects everything. The suffering that people have to go through when they have a loved one and they don’t have the resources available to help them, and the only resource that’s provided is jail. It’s system we created back in the 1980s and it’s failed. People are left with trying to solve it on their own, and it’s a problem that you can’t solve on your own. You need a support network. And families don’t have the capacity to deal with it. They need professional help. If we spent the money on professional help, we’d actually save money because there would be a heck of a lot less people in jail. We need to rethink these programs, and it starts on the local level.
“You say you’re going to be tough on crime. And what you end up doing is losing people.”
Earlier in the day, about 50 people gathered for a noon service in front of the red doors of Trinity Cathedral on Sixth Avenue, Downtown. Before prayers and readings of scripture, the church’s bell tolled -- 31 times for the 307 people who died of an overdose in Allegheny County last year.
In the last five years, 1,364 county residents have died of an overdose, according to The Coalition for Leadership, Education and Advocacy for Recovery, which partnered with the Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania and Downtown churches for the service.
Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh said recovery is only possible through a higher power, which can provide mercy, healing and strength.
The gathering, he said, also served as an act of repentance on the part of the church, which in the past has sometimes pushed away people with addictions.
“We want everyone to know the church is here to help people, not to shame people,” he said.
After the group held hands in a circle to say the Lord’s Prayer, some received Communion or oil for healing.
Fentanyl-laced heroin -- some stamped “theraflu” -- claimed the lives of 22 people in Western Pennsylvania in 2014, according to the state attorney general’s office.
Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1456. Lexi Belculfine: email@example.com or 412-263-1878. Twitter: @LexiBelc.