Around 50 people turned out Saturday for a rally at the Larry Labonte Recovery Center in Rumford to show community support for those in recovery and help reduce stigma around drug use.
“The initial emphasis of this rally is to try and connect people and let them know this community supports recovery and there are people in recovery in this community who want to support people who want to get help,” said Glenn Gordon, who serves as a liaison between the Maine Office of Behavioral Health’s overdose prevention initiative OPTIONS and Oxford County Mental Health Services, and who was one of the main organizers of the event.
Following the protest, there was a barbecue and testimony by people in recovery, advocates and family members. Attendees marched, carried signs and chanted slogans like “End the stigma, support recovery now” and “recovery is possible, community is cure.”
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maine has the ninth highest mortality rate from overdoses in the nation. Last year, the Maine Attorney General’s Office released a report that there were 10,110 overdoses reported in 2022 with 716 confirmed or suspected deaths. Rumford is no exception and Saturday’s event comes after a series of overdose deaths in the Rumford community.
“Last summer, particularly in early fall, was particularly devastating for the community of Rumford and Mexico” Gordon said. “As the fall progressed, three or four people who have deep family ties in the community, long term family ties, died from fatal overdose.”
In late August, the Rumford Police Department partnered with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Southern Maine Gang Task Force to address the flow of drugs into the community in an effort to reduce the violent and property crime that can accompany drug use, according to Rumford police Chief Tony Milligan.
By December, residents began having conversations about community action.
“And so I said, I would like to be a part of this. And I started to contact the people that I work with,” Gordon said. “And we put together a meeting in January with about 25 or 30 people from town managers to the police, a couple of the students […] people from the hospital.”
They conceptualized a series of events, starting with the rally, to bring the community together and discuss solutions to opioid use in their town. The group, River Valley Recovers Strong, plans to host a focus group in the upcoming weeks to hear from current drug users about their challenges, needs and barriers to accessing resources. They plan to share their findings at a community forum on May 1.
The rally aims to celebrate and “put a face on recovery,” according to Gordon. This is powerful as he explained that people with substance use disorders often keep their challenges private.
“Sometimes people in recovery are trying to be low key and get back to their lives and not draw a lot of attention to themselves, which makes a lot of sense,” Gordon said. “But we also felt like at this point that we needed to show people, people are feeling devastated, they’re feeling hopeless, we need to show there are people in this community who used to be active, using drugs and alcohol, and who are recovering and who are doing well and making a difference in their lives.”
Gordon himself is in recovery and his experience with substance use has motivated him to call for systemic change.
“My personal recovery has been a long journey,” Gordon said. “My interest in this is really seeing what my own family went through, and anything I can do to help people and help families to not have to go through some of the things that I went through.”
According to Gordon, the solution to substance abuse in Rumford has three parts: prevention and education, law enforcement to deal with issues of supply and criminal activity, and intervention to get people help and on the path to recovery.
Gordon believes that participation by young people is key to prevention and has given their movement legitimacy.
“People feel, and I think rightly so, that if we’re going to have any long term progress with these issues, that it starts with young people taking the charge and being involved in speaking up,” Gordon said.
Maine Student Action members Carly Baker and Nevaeh D’Angelo also helped to organize the rally. Last May, they held a documentary screening and panel discussion at Mountain Valley High School about opioid use and addiction in their school community.
Baker said that when she moved to Rumford she was shocked by how prevalent substance abuse was. “All my friends are using substances. All their family members are using substances,” Baker said. “At an overwhelming rate all my friends’ parents are dying, it’s pretty sad. And obviously this happens in every community, but with such a small community it’s so prevalent.”
Drug use and addiction is so stigmatized, Baker said, that it is hard to even start a conversation about recovery. “In our community, a lot of kids are not involved in making change or getting help because they don’t have the resources and they feel like it’s a lost cause,” Baker said. “So the more we speak out about it, the easier it’s gonna get for people to ask for help.”
D’Angelo has personal experience living in a family affected by substance abuse.
“My father is still battling with addiction, and my mom’s in recovery. So, it’s something that, to this day, affects my life pretty heavily,” D’Angelo told Beacon. “Not myself, I’m not struggling with it, but when addiction is present it affects everything around.”
D’Angelo spoke at the event about the impact that opioids and recovery had on her life growing up and today.
“When I went home, it would be ‘Where’s dad? Why did he leave again? Why did dad choose other women and other substances over me and my mom and my brother?’” D’Angelo recounted to the crowd. “I never could understand because I was so young and there was only so much my mom could tell me, to such a young child, to make me understand. But it confused me and to this day confuses me.”
These experiences left a lasting impact on D’Angelo and have motivated her to raise awareness of how drug use can impact the entire family.
“I find myself with a lot of anxiety, wondering why I’m not good enough,” D’Angelo said. “And trying to tell myself that it’s not me, I’m not the problem, but that my dad has just not yet found the time in his life when he is ready to step up and be a father.”
Despite these obstacles, D’Angelo ended her speech with a hopeful message to her peers currently living with drug use themselves or within their homes.
“I see so many of my friends and peers suffer as the days go on,” D’Angelo said. “And although I’m so lucky for the life I have now, and the stability I have now, and how confident I feel that my life is going to be okay. I know that others still struggle with that. And I just really want to bring awareness and show everyone that you don’t have to let what happens around you predict how your life is going to be.”