September 8, 2023
For over two decades, International Overdose Awareness Day has been observed on August 31st. In 2022, the Town of Needham worked together with community organizations to hold a vigil at Memorial Park, honoring those who have experienced loss. The event returned in 2023 for its second annual observance. Among the hosts of the vigil were representatives from the Becca Schmill Foundation.
The Becca Schmill Foundation was formed to honor the memory of Rebecca Mann Schmill, who passed away in September of 2020 as a result of fentanyl poisoning. The Foundation’s website shares her story, and how the tragic loss of a young life led to advocacy against sexual assault, substance use, cyberbullying and other online dangers.
Deb Schmill, Becca’s mother and president of the foundation, has been one of the key planners of International Overdose Awareness Day observance in Needham these past two years. “It was a really pleasant surprise last year and I heard from a lot of people afterwards who really appreciated the fact that we had this event and we are talking about these issues. I think it did strike a chord with the community.”
“It’s really meaningful, in terms of remembering people we’ve lost, but supporting the people who continue year after year to live with the pain of that loss. It means a lot to me, to other people who’ve experienced a loss to have that support in the community.”
Setting the tone for the night, the lawn at the base of Highland Avenue and leading up to Memorial Park was full of purple flags honoring the victims of the opioid epidemic. Referring to the display, Allie and Liana, members of Students Advocating for Life without Substance Abuse (SALSA), made the first presentation of the 2023 IOAD vigil.
“The flags that you can see on the hill are on display to represent the 2,357 lives lost to overdose in Massachusetts in the year 2022. They were cherished mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, partners and friends. They were loved and they are missed beyond words.”
For Deb Schmill, connecting the event with Needham’s youth is an important part of their mission. “When you think about substance use,” she said, “people generally think about it as an adult issue. The truth is it is medically considered a problem that is a pediatric onset. Basically, it starts with things that happen in your childhood. The earlier you may take a drink or use a drug, the more likely you are to be addicted later in life. So, we don’t focus enough on how do we help kids to cope, to find other ways to cope, rather than turning to alcohol and drugs. Our treatment really isn’t geared toward young people, it’s geared toward adults.”
“We want to make sure that every school is talking about fentanyl, every school is talking about how we reverse an overdose. Given access to drugs through social media it is ubiquitous, it takes one click basically to find a drug dealer, minutes and to get any drugs that you’re interested in. Kids are accessing these things and we have a crisis right now where our drug supply has been poisoned with synthetic opioids like fentanyl and this is a terrible combination and kids deserve to know that when they go online and someone’s trying to sell them a Xanax or an Adderall, that could be a deadly pill. That is probably, most likely Fentanyl and could kill them, one pill, half a pill. That’s a message that we’re trying to get out at schools, high schools, middle schools, colleges.”
Three people in recovery addressed the crowd. Bill Abbate, from Gosnold Behavior Health noted that treatment has advanced in recent years. “Just a short 15 years ago, the resources that were available when I first found recovery were so limited. You went to treatment and they would offer you twelve step recovery and maybe some MAT (Medication Assistance Treatment). Today we know that there are infinite pathways to recovery… I would be willing to bet you know someone personally that’s lost their fight to this disease. The sad thing about it is the disease of addiction is going nowhere. The good thing about it is neither are we.”
Eliza Foltz, the Chief Revenue Officer for Pretaa Inc, was a former athlete, going to Brown University and playing on the US Women’s Hockey National Team. “I already at that point had a pretty crippling cocaine addiction, it was all about performing, being the best, meeting standards, living up to what was expected. I think we all as parents want the best for our kids, so my parents were just being the best parents, but it just affected me a little bit differently.”
“We need to change the way we view recovery. MAT, 12 step, religion, exercise, art, creativity, whatever works for you is awesome and I am going to celebrate everybody’s recovery, because you’re in recovery when you say you are. Nobody gets to tell you what your recovery looks like, just like nobody gets to tell me what my recovery looks like… Nobody’s ever past saving, there’s always hope. 15 years, 9 treatment centers, relapse after relapse after relapse, overdoses, psych ward stays 3:00am calls to my mom, my dad, they never gave up hope. Love is the major thread that needs to carry the day, day in and day out.”
Scott Francis, from the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, who said of his journey to recovery. “For years that pain owned me. And it drove me to places that led to shame and hopelessness, so bad that I wanted to end my own life… By finding purpose in my pain and connecting with a community, allowed me to take a look at what was really going on for me. I realized I was coping with my pain by trying not to feel my feelings. I learned a beautiful thing… there are no limits on recovery and everyone is an expert on themselves… every day, each one of us are climbing that mountain of recovery. We all got to get to the top of that mountain.”
And he also had a final statement of motivation for the crowd. “My message to you all is to try and feel your feelings, to try and deal with the challenges in your life and try to heal from the trauma that everybody has to deal with on a daily basis. So I encourage everybody to feel, to deal and to heal and know in your heart and mind that recovery is real!”
Ryan Marshall, a Pastor from Highrock Church in Needham, emceed and concluded the event with a moment of silence. “We remember those we’ve lost, we declare that together we will work to spread light and spread hope and spread prevention and spread recovery we’ll say someone’s name we’ve lost.”
The vigil will return in 2024, but the work continues for those who have participated. The Becca Schmill Foundation hosts events all year round, with the next one coming up on Sunday, October 15th, Becca’s birthday. It’s a “Walk-About” for Fentanyl Awareness in Needham.
“I have my personal reasons why it’s important,” Deb said. “having lost my daughter to a fentanyl poisoning, but it’s also an opportunity to build awareness, to reduce stigma. I think that’s one of the key things, we need to get rid of the stigma around substance use. People who are addicted to substances don’t want to be. They are people who are struggling with a range of things or they’re genetically predisposed to this. It’s a brain disease, and the more we can get the awareness out there in the community about it the better, because it is so stigmatized and that means that people who need help are less likely to get help.”
The Needham Channel has the full event streaming right now, at: needhamchannel.org/2023/09/a-chance-to-raise-awareness/
For more on the Becca Schmill Foundation, go their website at: beccaschmillfdn.org.