Hundreds of people gathered at the State House to remember and honor their loved ones who have passed away from drug related-overdoses as part of the “Overdose Awareness Day and Remembrance Vigil” this past Thursday. The vigil was organized by Build the Banner of Love, and featured the unveiling of the company’s namesake, The Banner of Love comprised of nearly one hundred names and faces of those who have been lost accidental-overdose.
According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, there have been approximately 150 accidental overdose related deaths in Rhode Island since January. Additionally, nearly half of these deaths are fentanyl-related. The Department of Health describes fentanyl as “a highly potent opioid that poses a great threat and exacerbates our overdose crisis. The number of overdose deaths related to fentanyl has increased 15-fold since 2009 and significant portion of the 2016 deaths involved fentanyl.”
Rhode Island's overdose crisis began with prescription drugs, but beginning in 2009 deaths from prescription drugs have leveled off. However, deaths from illicit drugs are on the rise, sometimes with people turning to illicit drugs when they can no longer access prescription opioids.
Joy LaTorre, a nurse practitioner with 10 years of experience as an ER Nurse, founded Build the Banner of Love to bring awareness to the rising increase of accidental overdoses and to “break the stigma of addiction.” The non-profit organization offers support to grieving families who have lost someone to an overdose or addiction-related death. LaTorre, and the hundreds who gathered on the steps of the State House, are all pushing for addiction to be seen and recognized as a treatable.
Several groups of family and friends wore t-shirts featuring prayers and pictures of their loved ones who have passed away. Their t-shirt colors swirled together as they exchanged hugs with strangers and stories of those they came to honor. Suzanne Coutu lost her daughter, Kristen on Feb. 17, 2014 and wants to end the stigma of shame.
“The days of ‘let them hit rock bottom’ or ‘they have to learn their lesson’ is over,” Coutu said. “It’s not a moral fault, we understand now that this is an illness that can be treated and people might need to be treated their entire lives because that addiction doesn’t go away.”
As the sun began to set, hundreds of faux candles were lit up on the steps of the state house and LaTorre took the podium.
“I want each and every one of you to know that this is for you, it is a gift for you,” LaTorre” said. “If I could promise myself that I would never have to sew and engraft another face of a loved one into that banner it would be a great day. Unfortunately no one’s found a solution yet, but the solution that we do have is each other. We have hope, we have love, and we have faith that we can heal.”
LaTorre continued, sharing stories of her upbringing and background, how her parents were addicts, and she had three sisters who were split up and sent to foster homes. Later in life she fought with an alcohol addiction for many years. Despite these great struggles in her life, LaTorre vowed to never give up and now she is the full embodiment of the love she hopes to share with the world. LaTorre introduced three more speakers who shared stories about the loved ones they had lost.
Eric Minteer, father of Alex Minteer, 29, who passed away on the 13th of this past May, shared memories of his time with Alex. Alex graduated from Rhode Island College and was an accomplished musician.
“Throughout Alex’s childhood we enjoyed all of the things fathers and sons do,” Minteer said. “I taught him how to fish, how to ride a bike, we went camping, took karate classes, went to the movies. All the fun stuff. He is gone and now our family is left with the stigma of drug use and abuse. This stigma so often reduces our loved ones, and our grief, to their addictions. Alex was so much more than his disease.”
Following Minteer was Diane Lang, who spoke about her son, Brian Lang, 29, who passed away on October 30th, 2016. “My husband John and I lost a huge portion of our life on that terrible day,” said Diane Lang. “Brian was granted his final wish to be an organ donor; Brian was able to save seven lives. This vigil represents us all becoming part of a giant puzzle, one piece at a time coming together to stomp out this awful stigma of addiction.”
Jillian Coffey then spoke on behalf of her two brothers who passed away from overdoses: Joseph, 25, passed away on October 26, 2013 and Jared Coffey, 25, passed away on March 29, 2016. She shared memories of their time together and the love they shared.
To learn more about Build the Banner of Love Inc. and how you can donate or be involved go to: www.buildthebanner.org, Facebook “Build the Banner of Love,” and Instagram/Twitter @buildthebanner.