Hope Walk in Tuckerton Focuses on Fighting Opioid Addiction

Nov 08, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson About 75 people walked from Pinelands Regional High School to Tip Seaman County Park in Tuckerton to honor the victims of the opioid crisis.

Four friends from Little Egg Harbor who said they were tired of hearing the bad news about friends and family members overdosing decided to create a night of remembrance, awareness and hope. Rebecca Driscoll, Jennifer Keen, Scott Czaplinski and Jeremia Gruebele created a group called “Little Egg with Big Hearts,” and on Wednesday, Nov. 1, about 75 people heeded the call to join the “Hope Walk” from Pinelands Regional High School in Little Egg Harbor to Tip Seaman County Park in Tuckerton.

At the park they were greeted by hundreds of luminaries bearing slogans that children in the sixth grades of Tuckerton, Little Egg Harbor, Bass River and Eagleswood schools had thought of themselves: “Do Math Not Meth,” “Don’t Huff, Don’t Puff: Stay Away from that Stuff,” and “Pugs Not Drugs.”

One of the Hope Walk friends, Rebecca Driscoll, said she had distributed the white paper bags to the schools, and every single one of them came back decorated. “I’m a nurse and I see the effects of addiction every day,” said Driscoll, who works at Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin. “We all grew up together, and we’ve all been to one too many funerals.”

Driscoll had counted up the deaths: “One night scrolling through Facebook, reading yet another ‘Rest In Peace’ bulletin, I sat back and counted. How many people do I know of who have died from substance abuse? Thirty-nine. Wow. Thirty-nine families, co-workers, siblings, teachers and friends who have also been affected.”

Czaplinski agreed. “We have a bunch of friends affected by this.”

On a make-shift stage illuminated by lights donated by the West Tuckerton Fire Co., Gruebele welcomed the crowd to the “first annual Community Hope Walk.”

He urged people to talk to their family members and friends about the opioid crisis and said,  “If we save one life by doing this, it’s worth it – and we have no way of knowing who or what that person could achieve in life.

“Drugs do not discriminate; too many families know too well what can happen. My wife saved my life. I didn’t know I was in trouble, that I had a problem with painkillers, but she stayed by my side, she cared. Addiction is an ugly, dark, black hole that sucks everything in and rips everything apart. It’s up to us to take the steps to go the extra mile … to make this town that we love free of opioid overdoses, to make it safe. This town is part of the fight. It’s not the first time we came together to fight. The thing I remember best about (Superstorm) Sandy was not the devastation, but the relief efforts at the (Pinelands Regional) Middle School. (The school served as a shelter and later a warehouse for free clothes, food and cleaning supplies.)

“And when they opened South Green Street and I was helping my in-laws clean up their house, some women from town came by with lunch, and when I looked around the streets, there were hundreds of volunteers – people helping people. There was a little girl with cancer (Lily Pharo), and the entire town rallied around her. This town is already in the business of hope.

“Decide tonight to make this your fight! We need you to help us and help yourselves. You know what happens to a town that loses the fight? All the good people leave because they don’t want to live in that town anymore. We want a town with a future.”

Tuckerton Police Chief Brian Olsen spoke next. “As members of the first responders, we are on the scene to help the victims and also to calm and support the families. We try and do all we can, and if it doesn’t work and the person succumbs (to an overdose), it weighs on us. Could we have done more?

“This crisis affects everyone – rich, poor, young, old, members of every race. We need to come together.”

Little Egg Harbor resident Jennifer Keen spoke to the crowd about her own brush with addiction and how it had helped her make a career decision. “I’ve dedicated my life to the treatment of addiction, as a counselor,” she said. “It’s a family disease. The funerals I went to started when I was a teenager.”

Some brought pictures of their loved ones who had died from overdoses.

Laura Sytsma and her mother, Pat Rush, carried a picture of daughter and granddaughter Amber Nichole Ciccarelli. Sytsma’s daughter was only 26 when she overdosed and died last year, on Oct. 28. It was not the first time the young woman had a problem with heroin, but she had gone to a rehab and had been clean for two years before picking up her fatal dose of heroin that was spiked with fentanyl.

“I found her,” said Rush. “We called 911 and we used Narcan, but it was too late.”

Rush said parents should look for warning signs in their teens’ rooms such as hoodies without the string or bathrobes without the tie because “They use them to tie off their arm” to inject drugs.

“Paper cups with just a little bit of water in them, soda bottle caps and cotton balls plus orange caps from the syringes. People don’t know what they are.”

Ciccarelli had graduated from community college with straight A’s and was looking forward to attending Stockton University as a psychology major, said her mother.

“She also took up sign language so she could work with the disabled,” said her grandmother. “She was always thinking.”

“It was the fentanyl that killed her,” said Rush. “I think it’s terrorism from China or Mexico or wherever the drug dealers are getting their drugs, because dealers don’t want to kill off their clientele.”

“The pain never goes away,” said Sytsma. “You never get over this. You can’t smile or be happy – you just can’t.”

Little Egg with Big Hearts now has over 1,200 members and it’s the hope of the four friends who started the movement to make the Hope Walk an annual event. Donations from sales of their T-shirts will help pay it forward.

The Municipal Alliance of Little Egg Harbor, Tuckerton and Eagleswood; Pinelands Regional School District; Little Egg Harbor and Tuckerton police, and many local citizens aided in this first walk.

— Pat Johnson


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