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May 14, 2018 4:16 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

'Our Voices Need To Be Heard': Families, Survivors Tell Tales Of Opioid's Toll At Saturday Vigil

The candlelight vigil for those who lost their lives due to the opioid epidemic at Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays on Saturday evening.     DANA SHAW
May 17, 2018 6:30 AM

A mother’s trembling voice rose above the sound of steady rain that had begun to fall at Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays on Saturday night.

She pointed to the small flames flickering on candles arranged in a circle on the amphitheater deck in front of her—19 in total, representing each known opioid-related death in Southampton Town over the past year. The candles were displayed inside a larger ring of 400, one for every opioid-related death in Suffolk County.

“He’s one of those candles,” she said of her son.

Fighting through tears, she began to share the story of her 28-year-old son, a victim of the widening opioid epidemic that has swept across the nation and onto the East End.

“We have to try to stand strong and help each other,” she said. “And just remember, our loved ones are with us right now. They’re with us every minute.”

At a candlelight vigil Saturday night sponsored by the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force, people affected by the opioid epidemic stood together for nearly 90 minutes, sharing stories of the loved ones they have lost. They spoke of their sons and daughters, husbands, cousins, granddaughters and friends. They shared the pain they endure, day after day, and the stigma that still looms.

They spoke of the struggle to understand how their loved ones became statistics in a crisis that claimed more than 630,000 lives nationwide between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They expressed frustration with the pharmaceutical companies that fueled the crisis.

They remembered the accomplishments of their loved ones, who weren’t defined solely by drug abuse. They vowed to keep fighting, to never give up, to never let the names of the deceased be forgotten.

And they spoke about hope.

“All I can say is, keep fighting,” said former News 12 anchor Drew Scott, co-chairman of the addiction task force, who afterward described the night as cathartic. “Don’t give up. Stay together. Support one another and help all you can,” he said. “Talk to government officials, talk to the insurance people. We want more facilities, more treatment, and we’re getting there.”

Mr. Scott, a resident of Westhampton, held a framed photo of his granddaughter, Hallie Rae Ulrich, a Pierson High School graduate who died last year at 22. His granddaughter, Mackenzie Jenkins, Hallie’s cousin, stood beside him. The girls were like sisters, Mr. Scott said.

“Hearing everyone’s stories, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Mackenzie, 17. “It’s a disease.”

Mr. Scott asked the crowd of about 200 people how many have been touched directly by the loss of a loved one. Dozens of hands shot up.

“My heart goes out to you,” he said.

Danielle Alberti, 23, of Hampton Bays shared an expression she’d heard that describes two deaths. The first is when someone leaves the world. The second is when their name is said for the final time.

Her older sister, Melanie Alberti, died at the age of 21.

“Don’t stop saying your loved ones’ names,” she said. “Her name was Melanie Lynne Alberti. She was born on October 27, 1992, and she died October 19, 2014.”

Alfredo Merat, a musician living in Springs, remembered a close friend, also a musician, who was represented among the 19 candles. Robert Fox of Cutchogue remembered his son Kyle, who died last September at 34 after taking Oxytocin that had been laced with fentanyl. Kathleen McCabe of Westhampton Beach described her own battle with addiction and how her husband, Paul, died in 2008.

Lance Gumbs, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Tribal Council, described the call he received saying that his 36-year-old son, NaKea Lance Gumbs-Perry, had died. He was told there was fentanyl mixed with marijuana found in his son’s system. Other members of the Shinnecock Nation have died as well, he said.

“This has no community boundary,” he said, his voice rising in anger. “Whether it’s North Sea, Hampton Bays, Riverhead, Shinnecock Reservation—it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t make a difference how much money you have, whether you’re rich, poor. It has no eyes, it doesn’t see.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, also a task force co-chairman, pointed out the one large center candle that was surrounded by 19 others, saying it represented a young woman from Hampton Bays who died of a heroin overdose.

“This is a crisis that is affecting our entire community and our region,” he said. “Standing together, we can make a difference.”

Many speakers expressed a desire to bring the crisis out of the shadows.

“Tell everybody you know,” Mr. Scott said. “Fight this epidemic. Talk about it. Don’t sweep it under the rug.”

As the daylight faded, a candle someone held would occasionally die out. A moment later, someone standing nearby would quickly use their own candle to reignite it.

Even as the rain picked up, the candles in the circle remained largely lit—a symbol of the group’s resolve to never give up.

Joe Werkmeister is editor of the Riverhead Times Review and can be reached at joew@timesreview.com.

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Was pulling out of the 7/11 yesterday and saw two hypodermic needles laying on the ground in the parking lot. It's everywhere.
By johnj (796), Westhampton on May 17, 18 10:27 AM
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By jim (32), hampton bays on May 17, 18 11:46 AM
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By Fred s (106), Southampton on May 17, 18 11:59 AM
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By jim (32), hampton bays on May 17, 18 1:20 PM
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