It was an evening of awareness and remembrance on Thursday, May 14 as local residents, elected officials and members of the Resource Training and Counseling Center (TRTC) came together in the Holy Angels Academy auditorium to discuss what many are calling a drug epidemic.
“The reason we are doing this town hall meeting is to raise awareness of what’s going on in our community,” explained TRTC President Donna Mae DePola. “A lot of people are unaware of what is going on in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Fort Hamilton, and what we’re trying to do is get the message out that there is help.”
According to stats provided by TRTC, heroin is now responsible for more deaths in New York than homicide. In 2013, 420 people died of a drug overdose, while 335 deaths were deemed homicides. In addition, TRTC attested, one in every 15 who try non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within ten years.
Still, DePola said, people do recover.
“I’m clean from illegal drugs for 30 years in November,” said the Sunset Park native, now 66 years old. “If I can get better, anybody can get better. I think if we all have a helping hand and we all help people through this, we can help make our community better.”
Before introducing loved ones and survivors of addiction to speak, DePola thanked all those who have supported her center – from friends Larry Morrish and Kathy Khatari to elected officials like Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, State Senator Marty Golden and Councilmember Vincent Gentile.
“When you look at the photos of the youngsters [who have lost their lives to drugs], you realize how serious this problem is, and how close to home it hits some families in our neighborhood,” said Gentile. “We have acknowledged the problem and now what we have to do is address it.”
“Drugs ripped my family apart,” said Staten Island resident Ann Marie Perrotto. Perrotto was just 15 years old when she had her son, Christopher, and 18 when she had her daughter. It was always just the three of them, she said, until an addiction to painkillers overtook Christopher’s life, and took him from this earth at just 22 years old. “My nightmare is what I live every day. I wake up every day without my son, and it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder.”
Kevin Parker, a local survivor, spoke of his own near-death experience with drugs.
“Only by the grace of God am I here today,” said Parker, 28, adding that, while he had a great childhood, life changed when – after a head-on collision with a bus – doctors prescribed him painkillers. After quickly spinning out of control, Parker found himself in a coma, fighting for his life. “I was only 25 years old and [the doctors] weren’t ready to give up on me just yet. They told my family that even if I survived, I’d be a vegetable. All my organs quickly began to fail. My heart, my kidneys, my liver.”
One day, though, Parker woke up, but without his left leg, which had to be amputated, and without vision in one eye.
“I had to learn how to breathe, eat and walk again, like it was the first time,” he said. “I lost everything to drugs. I lost my career and almost an entire decade. I lost some of the best years to drugs.”
“Drugs and alcohol are killing our kids,” said Golden, stressing that – while strides have been made – much more needs to be done to clean up the streets of South Brooklyn, and save its children, and its older adults. “We always say, ‘If you see something, say something,’ well, when our kids are hurting, we’ve got to say something.”
Ortiz – who has allocated at least $15,000 towards a van for TRTC – agreed, noting that schools must begin to play a bigger role in prevention.
“We need to learn not to reject what has been identified within our community, and not to challenge what has been proposed,” he said, adding that he and Golden have introduced legislation that would make it mandatory for every school statewide to have mandatory counseling and prevention programs.
Gentile, Golden and Ortiz were all quick to turn the spotlight onto the RTC.
“One of the best things that has happened to this community in the last two years has been The Resource Training Center, and Donna,” said Gentile. “The fact that Donna is here, and that she has brought her professional staff with her to Bay Ridge is a positive move in addressing this problem.”