Story by Sara Paul
Ryan Caldwell has witnessed several friends overdose at a young age. Perhaps just as horrific as the actual deaths, according to Caldwell, is the silence and shame that surround the tragedies.
“When someone dies from an overdose, you often hear they suffered from ‘heart failure’ or they ‘stopped breathing.’ People avoid the word ‘overdosed’ because it’s looked down upon, and that’s why people are so ashamed to admit they have this disease,” comments Caldwell, himself a recovering addict.
The brave Warwick resident, who has been in recovery for five years, has partnered with friends, community members, and the Warwick Valley Prevention Coalition on a campaign coined, “Break the Stigma.”
“The mission of ‘Break the Stigma’ is to raise awareness by promoting transparency among individuals impacted by substance use disorder. Beginning right here within our own community and through the sharing of our own experiences, we hope to offer strength, wisdom, encouragement, support, guidance and resources to lay the foundation in promoting healthy coping strategies for all individuals, no matter how affected,” according to the group’s information packets.
On Sun., Jul. 29, Ryan’s sub-committee of the Coalition, will host a “Break the Stigma” walk in the Village of Warwick. Participants will meet at the Community Center, located at 11 Hamilton Ave. in Warwick, at 9 a.m. and step off for the walk between 10 and 10:30 a.m. Upon arrival at the Railroad Green at 11 a.m., attendees can listen to stories from people affected by substance abuse and also learn facts and statistics on the issue.
Speakers will include Mike Balles and Ed Fernandez, both individuals in long term recovery, and Mary Jane Ballinger, who lost her son, PJ Vonuchtrup.
The assembly will end at approximately 12:30 p.m. Back at the Community Center at 2 p.m., there will be family friendly festivities, including live music, refreshments, and a corn hole tournament.
“This event is geared for anyone affected directly or indirectly by drugs and alcohol. No one will be there to ask why you are attending,” Caldwell said, retelling his own battle with addiction, which started when he was only 16 years old.
A Native American from the Lenape tribe, Ryan grew up a normal kid, attending Warwick Valley’s prestigious schools, graduating from Warwick Valley High School in 2008. What started as drinking heavily at parties quickly and uncontrollably morphed into taking large amounts of pain medication. His expensive drug habits even landed him in prison for three years for burglary.
Now sober, Caldwell works full time at a local drug and alcohol treatment center. The 28-year-old survivor is committed to this mission of helping others seek treatment.
Connecting with Annie Colonna, Director of Prevention Services at the Warwick Valley Community Center and Coalition Coordinator, the pair launched the “Break the Stigma” campaign on social media.
“There is a lot of denial and shame in Warwick about this issue, and we need to break through that so people can get the help they need,” said Colonna, noting that as of 2014, Orange County had the most fatal overdoses in New York State.
“We need to treat addiction like cancer, like any illness, and stop thinking that sufferers have a choice in the matter. If your child has an illness, it is more beneficial to reach out to family, friends and services for help than to try to conceal or ignore it and hope it will go away,” she said.