Hundreds rally to combat heroin abuse

By CHRIS GAROFOLO
Staff Writer

It was an emotional morning from Greeley Park as hundreds of community members gathered Saturday for the "Awareness is Healing: Walk to STOP Heroin" rally.

Families, friends and city officials - all of whom have been touched by the ongoing opioid crisis that has spread from Keene up through the North Country and to the Seacoast - came together to fight back against narcotics abuse with strong support for those recovering from addiction and a movement toward resiliency and understanding.

"This is a huge epidemic. There are people who are suffering every day. They're breaking into houses and stealing from their own families," said Chris Oliverio, a Londonderry resident who works in Nashua. His son, Corey Oliverio, is a recovering addict.

"I'm here for him, and I'm here for all of you," he told the crowd. "We want to raise awareness that there is help out there for these people."

Dozens supporting Corey Oliverio were adorned in neon- yellow shirts. Everyone took a page out of the Oliverio playbook with their mantra, "One Day Longer, One Day Stronger."

"(Corey) was in an accident where his car caught on fire on Jan. 13, and he has been in an ICU up until last week, so it's been our slogan," said Oliverio, who joined in the walk from the park down Concord Street and eventually to City Hall before returning to Greeley.

"Every day is a day longer, but it's a day he is getting stronger. He's able to walk, he's able to be off a ventilator, so it's a slogan we kind of adopted to empower him and raise his spirits to know that he can do this," he added.

Many held up homemade anti-heroin signs. Those who lost a loved one held photos of them close to their chests or wrote their names on T-shirts. While there were many tears in memory of those who have died because of an opioid overdose, the overall mood was less somber and more positive about the community's ability to overcome this problem.

It truly was a neighborhood affair.

"So glad to see you here," one neighbor said to another upon seeing an old friend. "Glad to see you here, too," he replied.

State Rep. Eric Eastman, R-Nashua, praised the efforts of the hundreds of individuals who came out to rally against what he called a cultural cancer.

Legislative measures enacted as a result of this epidemic are just not enough, he said.

"Marches like this - and the kind of awareness that is generated - really is what's needed, because the thing that is going to turn the tide is changing the marketplace for this junk," Eastman said.

"It's changing the level of demand that exists on the streets and in our homes for this junk," he added. "Regardless of what we do from a statutory standpoint - in other words, lawmaking - or a state budget standpoint - in other words, redirecting funds for mental health and recovery, all of which is needed and all of which should be done - it isn't going to change the playing field until the players themselves realize this is a lousy game and they step out of it. And this kind of march is going to lead to that kind of change and public perception."

Mayor Jim Donchess, who spoke at the rally and strolled downtown with hundreds of walkers, recently launched the Nashua Task Force on Substance Use Prevention, Treatment & Recovery.

"We are trying to get everyone together who has been touched by this - the hospitals, the treatment centers, the social service people - to identify the goals we want to achieve as far as reducing heroin addiction, improving prevention, and also to identify gaps where improvement in services are needed," he said. "We're trying to make progress as quickly as we can."

The number of opioid-related deaths has skyrocketed in New Hampshire and across the Northeast. In 2014, the Granite State was ranked ninth nationwide for total fentanyl (a fast-acting, heroin-like narcotic) seizures, by far the lowest-populated state in the top 10.

More than 400 individuals in the state died from a drug overdose last year, a majority of those deaths were caused by fentanyl, heroin or another opioid while thousands more overdosed and saved by first responders. Drug overdoses are now the second-most common cause of death in New Hampshire, ahead of diabetes, breast cancer and motor vehicle accidents.

Dan Weeks, a longtime campaign finance reform activist now running as a Democrat for the New Hampshire Executive Council, walked with his supporters up to the park after making his candidacy official from Railroad Square on Saturday morning.

He encouraged people to join in the walk to stop the heroin outbreak.

"Every day in this state, more than one person dies because of a needless overdose with heroin," Weeks said. This heroin epidemic, he said, is going to take a community to fix.

The event opened a few minutes after 11 a.m. with a contemporary dance from four women from the Hudson-based Showcase Performing Arts Center. The dance, titled "How to Save a Life," was inspired by Showcase Co-Director Ali Buckley after losing a friend to heroin last August.

"I created this piece on the idea that art can move the masses and speak the (truth) where words cannot," Buckley said.

In an effort to get more community involvement to reduce substance abuse, Nashua Police Chief Andrew Lavoie asked residents to help serve as the eyes and ears of the community.

"Call our drug line (594-3597). Call our regular number (594-3500). You don't even have to ever leave your name, but the biggest thing is call us. We have active investigations all the time, but quality-of-life issues we can address immediately," he said.

In the city, heroin and opioid related overdoses and deaths hit new records last year. Nashua police reported there were at least 226 suspected and confirmed overdoses, an 81 percent hike of the 125 overdoses in 2014.

"If someone is saying they don't know someone that's been touched by heroin or they have been personally ... they live in a bubble," Lavoie said.