Story by Kristina Hoti
The 2nd Annual Break the Stigma Walk, sponsored by the Warwick Valley Prevention Coalition, hosted an event in Stanley-Deming Park, on Sun., Jul. 28, which included a walk through the Village of Warwick. The event was free to attend; food and beverages donated by ShopRite of Warwick and the Ecumenical Food Pantry were available for purchase.
Additional sponsors for the Walk were Green Team Realty, Gerber Finance, Inc. (in Loving Memory of P.J. VonUchtrup,) Rosenthal & Rosenthal (in Loving Memory of P.J. VonUchtrup,) TJC Enterprises, a Recovery Owned Business, and In Loving Memory of Scott Listwon (from Mom, Chris, and Shea.)
The focus of the event was to provide a safe and accepting place for people to find resources for assistance with substance use and addition, and for mental health services. The resounding message throughout the day’s activities was that if more people came out to talk about these prevalent and ever-growing challenges within every community, it would help to begin the process of healing for so many who suffer.
Warwick Village Mayor Michael Newhard said, “This is a great event; it’s wonderful that it has become an annual activity. The only way we can grow awareness is by repeating it and making it loud and clear.”
The Inception of the Break the Stigma Walk
Former Warwick Valley Prevention Coalition Coordinator Annie Colonna spoke of the importance of this type of community awareness, especially since Orange County has one of the highest levels of death by overdose in the area. Colonna credits the current Coordinator, Ryan Caldwell, with bringing the idea for the march to her last year.
“Last year’s event was so successful, we decided we would do it again,” said Colonna.
Caldwell is a recipient of the Laura Elliot-Engel “Recovery Advocacy Award,” which he received in the spring at the Friends of Recovery Advocacy Day in Albany, NY.
“There is so much stigma around so many things, not just addiction, but mental illness, gambling,” said Caldwell. “We thought if we could make a day and bring every resource together, have some music, have some food, make it fun, and walk through town to make a statement…that’s how it sprouted.”
The organizations which came to participate in this community outreach included The Prevention Alliance of Orange County, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI,) the Ellenville Rural Health Network, Local 12-Step Fellowships Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, Hope Not Handcuffs, Suicide Prevention, and Problem Gambling Resource Center. Each organization had a table with representatives handing out plenty of materials and offering information about the services they provide.
Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk
The walk kicked off at 12:30 p.m., when the gathered group exited Stanley-Deming Park at the corner of Park Way and South St. Led by Warwick Valley Prevention Coalition volunteers carrying a large banner, the crowd to Railroad Ave., and finally took South St. back to the park. Soon after the walk, Caldwell addressed the gathered crowd and thanked everyone for coming, encouraging everyone to take advantage of all of the organizations present to learn about the services offered. He introduced the first speaker, the Chief of Police of Chatham, NY, in Columbia County, MSW Peter Volkmann.
‘Chatham Cares for U’
Volkmann, in long-term recovery himself, created a program in his Police Department called “Chatham Cares for U,” in which, anyone struggling with addiction can walk into the Chatham Police Department, request help with recovery, and be guaranteed assistance.
Volkmann applies a simple “economics 101” approach to the problem. Understanding that as long as there is a demand, the drug supply will continue.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this; let’s try to lower the demand by helping people,” said Volkmann.
He researched tactics put in place in Europe and many other countries, where the drug problem has been addressed first and foremost as a public health crisis instead of a law enforcement crisis.
‘You’re Worth It’
Volkmann told a story of a time when he had to abandon his New Year’s Eve plans with his wife to go to the station and help an addict who had come in looking for help.
The addict looked at him and asked why he would leave his New Year’s Eve party to come help him. Volkmann recounted to him the conversation that he had with his wife when he explained that he couldn’t join her that evening, because he needed to help someone find their way to recovery. He simply told him, “She said, you’re worth it.”
The Chatham Police Agency is a part-time agency, and in the three years that Volkmann’s program has been in place they have helped over 225 people with the “Chatham Cares for U” program.
Pastor Raymond Ramos Addressed the Harm of the Stigma
Lastly, Pastor Raymond Ramos, of the Recovery House of Worship, spoke. Pastor Ramos is from Brooklyn, and is one of three children who all suffered from addiction. He spoke of how the stigma contributed to the problem. He spoke of how his mother struggled with the cultural stigma around her children’s drug addiction.
“We are Puerto Rican. In her mind, the shame, the enemy would tell her, ‘you can’t tell no one, your kids are drug addicts…the other aspect is that as a parent she blamed herself,” said Pastor Ramos.
Pastor Ramos shared his heartbreak upon the death of his own son, to a drug overdose.
“I was preaching and teaching addicts how to get help, so the stigma affected me,” he said. “How can you help people all over the word in different countries, different continents…and you can’t help the young man that lives in your house? It brought shame to me.”
Ramos’s story showed that only in talking about the problem and facing it directly, can you begin to recover.