On the night of Saturday, Feb. 27, a 27-year-old man reached out for help after relapsing. Two calls later, he was on his way to Redemption House, a short-term facility in New Haven for anyone suffering from substance use disorder with nowhere to go.
The next morning, the man entered a detox center in Hartford.
“We had a system in place so this person could get the help he needed,” said “Coach” Tony Morrissey, chair of the non-profit Brian Cody’s Brothers & Sisters Foundation and organizer We Cry Out Rally on the Branford Green, which was moved to Sunday April 11 due to rain . “There were no questions about insurance or who’s writing a check. It was all about getting him a real chance at recovery.”
The series of events on Feb. 27 unfolded in New Milford, not on the Shoreline. But it could have. And that’s the point of the rally, according to Morrissey.
“The opioid epidemic touches every town,” he said. “The rally on Sunday is about raising awareness about who it’s touched and, more importantly, talking about strategies to stop its spread,” he said.
For Morrissey, who, along with his wife Tracey, has been galvanized by the August 2019 fatal overdose of their 20-year-old son Brian Cody Waldron, that means broaching issues like gun violence, domestic abuse, and homelessness, all of which often play a role in substance abuse, he said.
That means featured speakers like Chaz Carmon of the anti-violence New Haven organization Ice the Beef; Rick Delvalle, founder of the Redemption Houses; and Bobby Lawlor of The New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, as well as Morrissey and state Rep. Sean Scanlon (D-Guilford).
“There have been two pandemics in the last year,” said Scanlon. “There’s been one dealing with COVID which we all know about, and then there’s this second pandemic which is a mental health and substance use one.”
Scanlon, who said his personal and family history with addiction has driven his interest in the crisis, met the Morrisseys in 2019.
“This is a family that’s been making a real change in this state,” he said.
That’s an understatement, it seems.
Considering the precipitous rise in opioid-related overdoses in 2020, the organization’s success in New Milford has been, by any measure, impressive.
Nationally, over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the 12 months ending in May 2020, according to the CDC, an increase of nearly 22 percent. In Connecticut, the Department of Public Health confirmed 1,359 drug overdose deaths in 2020, a 13.3 percent increase, compared to 2019.
And then there is New Milford, whose overdose deaths were down by about 20 percent in 2020, according to Morrissey.
Its success, he said, is due in part to the work of Justin Cullmer as New Milford’s community navigator, a position created in September 2019 to connect residents at risk from substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness or domestic violence with the proper treatment, housing, or family support resources.
For Cullmer, who works with the police and was instrumental in getting the man the help he needed on Feb. 27, the role of community navigator addresses what he has called the “whole continuum of care.”
“You can’t just get them to that first step and then say good luck,” he has said.
Morrissey believes the legislation proposed by Brian Cody’s Law and being considered by the state legislature, including the provision of necessary medical treatment for dependent persons; an increase in penalties for illegal distribution of opioids resulting in death; and the community navigator program, can provide a blueprint for towns across the state fighting the opioid epidemic.
Count Janice Ferraro a believer. Last September, she landed at Redemption House. And stayed.
“From being broken and broken-hearted, I learned to take my recovery slow and to remember every day that I have so much to be grateful for,” said Ferraro, who’s now managing a women’s sober house and training to become a recovery coach. She also helps those struggling with substance use disorder apply for benefits and connect with resources on their way to rebuilding their lives.
“The first step is reaching out for help,” she said. “That’s how it started for me. It’s worked because the staff at the house took me in, and then let me stay and work on myself, and that really gave me a sense of purpose.”
Morrissey said he sees the rally as an opportunity to team up with formidable allies like Carmon and Lawlor, as well as Madison’s Lisa Deane of DemandZero, founded in memory of her son Joe Deane, who died at 23 from an accidental fentanyl overdose in December 2018.
As part of its mission to “bring the deadly drug supply and the dealing of those drugs to a halt in New Haven and the shoreline,” she’s the force behind the graphic anti-drug billboards on I-95 in New Haven, the purchase of drug-detecting canines for the New Haven Police Department, as well as the powerful Signature Sculpture, which was unveiled at the state Capitol in Hartford last August.
“We’re all in this together,” Morrissey said. “We don’t want this to happen to one more family.”
The We Cry Out Rally will take place on the Branford town green from 1-3 p.m. on Sunday, April 11. For more information, visit #BrianCodysLaw on Facebook.
Editor’s note this story was updated with date change for rally from March 28 to April 11 due to heavy rain on Sunday.