Celebration of Life event remembers overdose victims

CAASA member Harriet Burak speaks about her son Michael during last week's Celebration of Life event. (Jay Turner photo)

CAASA member Harriet Burak speaks about her son Michael during last week’s Celebration of Life event. (Jay Turner photo)

Nearly 100 people, including local officials, first responders, and Canton High School students, gathered on the lawn in front of the Canton Senior Center last Thursday evening for a Celebration of Life event in memory of those lost to drug overdose. The event coincided with International Overdose Awareness Day, which is held every August 31 in an effort to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death.

Sponsored by the Canton Alliance Against Substance Abuse and organized by CAASA member Harriet Burak, last week’s program featured a mix of speeches, poetry readings, and song and culminated with a candle-lighting ceremony and the reading of names of local overdose victims. It was the first event of its kind to be held in Canton and was hailed by CAASA Chairman Charles Doody as a “beautiful ceremony” and a resounding success.

Doody, in his opening remarks, made a point to acknowledge the ongoing opioid crisis that has spread across the United States — a crisis that President Donald Trump recently declared a national emergency and one that claims the lives of more than 90 Americans each day. However, Doody also stressed that Thursday’s program was not about “trends, statistics or numbers.”

“It’s about people,” he said. “You can go online, you can read the newspapers and get all the statistics you want on the ravages of drug abuse. But tonight we’re here to remember sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandchildren and honor their memory, and also we’re here for people who are currently battling addiction and to remember them.”

Doody said the program was also intended to serve as a reminder that drug abuse and the disease of addiction affects everyone in some way. “Anyone who’s familiar with it understands that addiction doesn’t pay attention to race or religion or social status or financial status. It cuts across all of those lines for many reasons.”

The evening’s featured speaker was Burak, a longtime Canton resident and an outspoken advocate for drug abuse awareness and prevention. Burak, who lost her son, Michael, to a heroin overdose in 2004, took the opportunity to share a “little piece of Michael’s story,” drawing from quotes in the journals he left behind as well as her own memory of the young man and boy he once was.

Burak recounted how her son loved drawing and animation, loved playing with Legos, and told the most fantastic stories. “He always had a twinkle in his eye and had a wonderful laugh that belonged only to him,” said Burak. “Michael was loved, truly loved by his family. We wanted so much for him. Somehow along the path of life from childhood to young adulthood Michael’s life took a turn that would redirect him away from his family and towards another direction … the world of drug addiction.”

Referring to Michael’s own words, Burak said her son’s substance use began with marijuana in his teenage years and that once he tried heroin he was “hooked.”

“I don’t think that Michael willingly chose drugs over everything else in his life,” she said. “I truly believe that despite all the efforts on his part and the support of everyone around him that he was powerless against heroin.”

Emphasizing that addiction is a disease of the brain and not simply the result of poor choices, Burak said the only sure-fire way to prevent an overdose or a lifetime of dependency is to never start, although she agreed that it is “not that simple.” Still, she said, the key to beating drug addiction is to “keep the conversation going” and to continue to share ideas and resources within the community and across communities with the goal of promoting prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery.

“We are here to support those who are fighting addiction and for those families who have loved ones fighting the battle of their lives,” Burak said of CAASA. “There is hope; there is healing; there is support available.”

In addition to remarks by Doody and Burak, Thursday’s ceremony also featured a series of readings performed by CAASA members Janet Donnelly, Nick Pirelli, Phyllis Moore and Terri Khoury and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jennifer Fischer-Mueller. Readings included “The Star Fish,” adapted from an essay by Loren Eiseley; “We Remember Them,” a poem by Rabbi Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer; and “One,” a poem by BJ Gallagher.

The Canton Choral Society also performed during the ceremony, singing “You are the New Day” and “Shenandoah,” and the members led the audience in singing “America the Beautiful.”

During the candle-lighting ceremony, Pirelli and Donnelly read the names of overdose victims, and audience members stood in solidarity along with those who were there to remember their loved ones.

“Let us always remember the light that our loved ones brought and continue to bring into our lives,” remarked Burak. “Tonight is truly a celebration of life.”

See this week’s Canton Citizen for more photos from the Celebration of Life event.

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