OVER 400 RESIDENTS attended the fourth annual A Night of Hope ceremony on the Town Common on Sept. 18. A Healthy Lynnfield and the Think of Michael Foundation hosted the ceremony once again. (Dan Tomasello Photo)
By DAN TOMASELLO
LYNNFIELD — The Town Common was transformed into a sea of purple as over 400 hundred residents showed their support for people in recovery during the fourth annual A Night of Hope on Sunday, Sept. 18.
A Healthy Lynnfield and the Think of Michael Foundation hosted the ceremony once again in observance of National Recovery Month. The event began with attendees, who were wearing purple T-shirts, walking from the Lynnfield Middle School parking lot to the Town Common.
“Tonight, we unify as a community to raise awareness about the issues of addiction and mental health,” said Town Administrator Rob Dolan, who served as the master of ceremonies of A Night of Hope.
A Healthy Lynnfield/Select Board Chairman Phil Crawford thanked the over 400 residents for attending A Night of Hope. He recalled that the substance use prevention coalition was formed in 2017, and seeks to “bring awareness, education and resources to the residents of Lynnfield.”
“Statistics show that over 90 percent of people who have substance use disorder started to drink or use drugs before they were 18-years-old,” said Crawford. “These issues know no community, economic or education boundaries. We all know someone — a family member, a friend, a co-worker or a neighbor — impacted by substance use or mental health issues. That is why prevention is so important.”
Crawford said A Night of Hope and similar ceremonies being held around the country this month “celebrate the millions of Americans who are in recovery.”
“They remind us that treatment is effective and that people can and do recover,” said Crawford. “It also helps reduce the stigma and misconceptions that cloud the public’s understanding of mental health and substance use.”
Think of Michael Foundation Treasurer Dick Dalton recalled that his family formed the nonprofit organization in honor of their son and brother, Michael, who passed away from an opiate overdose in January 2018. He thanked the community for the “love and support” they have provided to the Dalton and Cook families over the last the four-and-a-half years.
“We gather here and remember the loved ones we have lost to addiction, and hopefully provide encouragement to those individuals and families dealing with this disease,” said Dalton. “As my wife Carmela often says when asked about the foundation, if we can spare just one family from the heartbreak we have endured, that would be a fitting tribute to our son.”
Dalton recalled that the Think of Michael Foundation awards sober house scholarships to people in recovery.
“Initially, we thought most of the people we would be helping would be dealing with opioid addiction,” said Dalton. “It’s not the case. In fact, two out of the three scholarships we give are awarded to people dealing with alcohol addiction. Alcohol can kill, it can ruin a career and it has severe consequences. But unlike opioids, alcohol is legal and socially acceptable. But too many people think that getting drunk is a rite of passage for youngsters. I would urge everyone here to think about how we address all sorts of addictions so we can be open and honest about it, and seek help when it’s necessary. The foundation is here to help each and everyone of you who needs it.”
North Suffolk Mental Health Association (NSMHA) Recovery Coach Manager Caitlin Gillespie recalled while holding her daughter Harper that she was living in a tunnel underneath the Zakim Bridge six years ago.
“I was engaging in criminal activity to support my habit,” said Gillespie. “I was using my drug of choice pretty much unwillingly every day. I tried to get clean many times, but I just couldn’t do it. I had no hope. On Sept. 28, 2016, I was arrested for the last time. That is when I learned that I was three months pregnant. My life has changed since that time. Instead of being a homeless and hopeless intravenous drug user, I am now helping other people.”
In addition to working as a recovery coach at NSMHA, Gillespie is enrolled in nursing school and has started a nonprofit organization that helps people suffering from substance use.
“My life is dedicated to helping others,” said Gillespie. “There is no recipe for someone who becomes an addict. I grew up in a small town west of Boston, and graduated at the top of my class in high school. I graduated from UMass-Amherst, but that didn’t matter. I ended up as that homeless girl in Boston. I didn’t have hope for a long time, but I am here to tell you there is so much hope. Despite the ups and downs recovery has brought me, I wouldn’t change any of it because it made me a stronger individual.”
Gillespie said Harper helped her turn her life around.
“If it was not for this little girl, I don’t know if I would be here today,” said Gillespie. “She is the reason I do everything that I do. Thanks Harper.”
After Gillespie concluded her remarks, she was given a standing ovation.
Aftermath Recovery Center CEO/Founder Matt Ganem recalled that he has been in recovery for the past 16 years.
“It’s beautiful to see a community come together,” said Ganem. “When I was struggling, I was part of the OxyContin epidemic and progressed into heroin. There was no hope and no help back then. We were looked down upon. You would never see events like this in a community like Lynnfield. It’s great to see how far we have come.”
Ganem noted that he shares his story while giving presentations at different schools.
“I always talk to the kids about being a leader and not a follower,” said Ganem. “When I was a kid, I followed my group of friends and whatever they did whether did. When alcohol was presented to me, I didn’t have the courage to say no. When weed, other drugs and eventually OxyContin was presented to me, I couldn’t say no. Having all of the kids here and being involved is huge. I hope when kids get into similar situations, they will have the courage to say this isn’t for me. Unfortunately for me, I went to four different high schools in two states, never made it to college and I was homeless when I should have been enjoying my college years. Fortunately for me, I was able to hit rock bottom and bounce back. I was broken, homeless and hopeless. But today, I completely live a beautiful life.”
Ganem published his book “The Shadow of An Addict” in 2011. He received the Recovery Advocate of the Year Award from the Massachusetts Organization of Addiction and Recovery in 2015.
“I have opened up two sober houses, and I am also the CEO of a treatment center,” said Ganem. “I get to wake up with a purpose every day. I hope that I can give hope back to somebody who is struggling because it’s very difficult when you are struggling.”
Ganem is also an award-winning poet, and he shared two poems with the crowd. He asked the crowd to say “miracle” periodically while he was reciting the second poem.
“Don’t you ever forget you are a miracle,” said Ganem.
After Ganem concluded his remarks, he was given a standing ovation.
Wakefield-Lynnfield United Methodist Church Rev. Glenn Mortimer gave the closing blessing during A Night of Hope. He said people suffering from substance use and mental health challenges can reach out to the Lynnfield Clergy Association for help at any time.
Lynnfield High School senior Evyenia Georges, who is a member of A Healthy Lynnfield’s Youth Council, said having hope is critically important.
“We are here to focus on hope whether it is hope for the community, a friend, a family member, or hope for yourself and your future,” said Georges. “We have all come together to show our unity and support against this disease. We know that finding and maintaining hope is not always easy, but we always have hope’s light to guide us through the darkness. We must create a community of hope in our individual journeys.”
Georges encouraged A Night of Hope’s attendees to support each other.
“My hope is that we can create a community force of support on this Night of Hope for all,” said Georges.
Lynnfield High senior Drew von Jacko, who is also a member of A Healthy Lynnfield’s Youth Council, said it’s critically important to “eradicate the stigma” surrounding mental health and substance use.
“Hope is something we need to fight the stigma of mental health treatment,” said von Jacko. “People do not have an addiction because they want to. They have lost all of their hope, and ended up with this terrible disease. Our mindset is what needs to be changed about these issues.”
After Georges and von Jacko concluded their speeches, they were given a round of applause.
The ceremony concluded with the ceremony’s attendees lighting the electronic purple votive candles in support of people in recovery and in remembrance of the lives lost to addiction. Town Administrator Rob Dolan concluded the ceremony by encouraging people to treat each other with kindness and respect.
“Let’s make every night A Night of Hope,” said Dolan.