BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A recently formed community organization, the Essex County Opioid Task Force, on Sunday morning, Nov. 11, held a walk along Bloomfield Avenue. The purpose of the walk, which organizers say will be an annual event, was to call attention to the deadly proliferation of opioid addiction.
The first stop was at the Bloomfield Fire Department firehouse at Municipal Plaza. About 36 people, including Bloomfield Police Department officers on hand to ensure pedestrian safety, were joined by a contingent of walkers from Schools Stadium, Newark, the starting point of the event. Ahead were planned stops in Glen Ridge, Montclair, Verona and Caldwell, with a luncheon in West Caldwell.
The task force was established by a former Morris County high school substance-abuse counselor, Robin Lavorato, of West Caldwell. She also coordinated the walk.
In a recent telephone interview, Lavorato said that this past May she began contacting organizations explaining that she wanted to form an opioid task force. She was met with a positive response and began holding monthly meetings in various Essex County venues, including Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, in West Orange; GenPsych, in Livingston; and the Nutley Middle School.
About 75 people showed up for the first meeting at Restoration House, Newark. But after that, Lavorato noticed only the same people attending the meetings. In August, she decided a walk would bring greater attention to the opioid crisis.
“The agencies know about the opioid addiction, but not the people,” she said. “Essex County has the highest rate of opioid overdose in NJ. There’s no discrimination here.”
Lavorato found it troubling that if a parent went into their child’s school, they would find peanut butter-free tables, but no concern about drug addiction.
“If we know kids are dying, and a lot are in their early 20s, I don’t see parents outraged by this,” she said. “But we have parents coming into schools and saying their child has a peanut allergy and has to sit at a peanut butter-free table. Nobody wants to talk about the elephant in the living room.”
Lavorato said the opioid epidemic began 20 years ago with pain-management clinics. What she said was reminiscent of what Eileen Fishman, the director of the Essex County Division of Community Health, said this past summer in Glen Ridge during an Essex County Prosecutor’s Office forum on the opioid crisis.
Fishman said the epidemic began in the ’90s with the growth of pain-management clinics. At these facilities, doctors would ask patients how much pain they experienced and then prescribe an opioid for that level of pain.
At the Bloomfield firehouse on Sunday, an enthusiastic group had gathered. The sky was clear, the air was crisp and Municipal Plaza was closed. An hour after the task force group was scheduled to depart, the Veterans Day march, from Town Hall to the VFW Post 711 memorial at Franklin and Broad streets, would begin.
At the firehouse, Bloomfield resident Neil Ciccone said he was walking for his son, Jordan.
“I lost him this past August from an overdose,” Ciccone said. “He was 21. There are kids out there, they need guidance. They should teach this in schools.”
Parents Hank and Susan DeFrance, from Belleville, came to walk.
“We lost our son four years ago,” Hank said.
Their son’s name was Matthew. He was 24.
“My wife and I started an organization called ‘Rubber Ducky,’” he said, offering a small brochure that gave warning signs of drug use and tips for parents.
Anthony Molinari, of Belleville, said he lost his girlfriend, Alexis, in August, She was 45 and died from an overdose.
Lavorato spoke to the group.
“This walk today is about saving the life of one person;” she said, “changing the life of one person.”
Almost 3,000 people died of drug overdoses in Essex County last year, she said, and saving one life would save a thousand others.
“This is about the thousands and thousands of broken hearts,” she said.”
Another speaker was Anthony Cerruto, manager of New Directions Behavioral Health Center, in Newark. Cerruto said he had connections to Bloomfield: he grew up with Public Safety Director Sam DeMaio, and a cousin of his owned a popular township pizzeria.
“What we’re trying to do,” he said, “we’re trying to open eyes. Seventy-two thousand people have overdosed in the U. S. We have to take a look at our own community.”
In the ECPO forum this past summer, 72,000 deaths in this country from an overdose during 2017 was also cited.
Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia spoke.
“It’s a crisis in America and we see it in Bloomfield once or twice a week, with Narcan deployments,” he said.
Venezia called the walkers “the backbone of trying to cure this disease.”
BPD Sgt. Naomi Zepeda told the walkers the amount of Narcan the police deployed was “heartbreaking.” She said the opioid task force would grow and the Bloomfield police would be with them.
In a telephone interview earlier this week, Lavorato said 80 people were at the last stop of the walk, in Caldwell. The West Caldwell luncheon was attended by 200 people. Its keynote speaker was Agent James Hunt, of the NY Drug Enforcement Administration, and a West Caldwell resident.