Cuyahoga Falls -- "We're mad as heck and we're not going to take it anymore."
Paraphrasing the famous line from "Network," this is how a speaker opened the Light the City Up candlelight vigil for opiate awareness Sept. 8 at the Falls River Square Amphitheater where approximately 70 people gathered to remember the lives lost to opiate addiction and give hope for those in recovery.
Cindy Koumoutzis, the parent of an addict in recovery, said she has learned to trust her daughter again and refrain from searching her daughter's room or her daughter's phone and she's not asking her a lot of questions about where she's been and who she was with.
"I've found when a family member recovers along with their child in treatment, the recovery goes much better," Koumoutzis said. "We as family members have to recover. We are as sick as our kids." Showing them they are trusted allows them to "take their recovery," she said.
Opiate addiction is a disease, she said, not a choice. "You can't just stop."
Among the speakers in the city's second annual Light the City Up was Charlie Kilbel, firefighter/paramedic with the Cuyahoga Falls Fire Department who lost a brother to opiate addiction.
"It has been 403 days since I lost my older brother Joey to a fentanyl overdose," Kilbel said. "Not a day goes by where I don't think of him. In just over a year I cannot tell you what my mind and heart have gone through. This truly has been the toughest year of my life."
Pictures and memories are not the only things that constantly remind Charlie of his brother. "Every single time that I respond to an overdose call while at work I think of him. The reminder doesn't preclude me from doing what I am supposed to do as a paramedic; it enhances my approach and reminds me of what is at stake for the person in front of me, their family and everyone else that continues to hold onto hope for their recovery."
Kilbel said when he and his family wrote Joey's obituary they "announced that he had 'lost his battle to the demons of drug addiction.' And while I believe that drug addiction is a battle of extraordinary proportions and truly of a demonic nature, I stand here tonight to remind you that drug addiction is a disease."
He compared addiction to cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
"As a society we often like to convey the idea that people who need help should get it and the sick are deserving of medical care / The fact that we can't agree on the definition of the problem that claimed 50,000 lives across the country last year is absurd. That is the population of Cuyahoga Falls."
Saying addicts are sick does not negate the fact some may have made bad choices, he said, "but why are we so keen on the notion that due to the desire to hold people personally responsible for their actions precludes us from helping them? Addicts are people and their lives matter."
Judge Lisa Coates of the Stow Municipal Court said she spoke at Light the City Up last year. "I'd like to say things have improved, but they haven't," Coates said. "When a probation officer comes up to me and says [someone] OD'd, you don't think I take that home at night? I do, and I take it very personally."
Coates said she attends or speaks at two or three events a month that focus on drug addiction and recovery. She said the Cuyahoga Falls Rotary Club recently had speakers from Crawford County where the community has banded together to fight drug addiction. Ten years ago the county was among the top counties in the state for the number of opiate deaths. Today, the county ranks 44th, she said.
"We have to get organized as a community," she said.
The list of speakers included Judge Coates; Kilbel; Sunny Matthews, Akron Municipal Court bailiff; Brenda Ryan, mother of Sheena Moore who died of a drug overdose; Lori Stumpf, mother of an addict son; Jonny Szczesniak, recovering addict; Kim Demassimo, Spiritual Saturation Foundation; Greg McNeil, Recover 2 Resources; Melissa Brown Paruleski, Cleveland Clinic nurse; Dr. Jeanette Moleski, Hudson physician; Fire Chief Paul Moledor; Police Chief Jack Davis; Kelly Gasparilla, member Oriana House administrative board; and "Rosa," Summit County Board of Health.
Sponsors of the event were: Western Reserve Hospital and the Cuyahoga Falls Chamber of Commerce.