One by one, through tears and in voices rising with anger, they stepped forward and shared tragic details of how heroin and opioids have torn apart their lives.
A mother of an addict said she feels so hopeless she has “made his funeral arrangements in my brain.’’ A woman from Delaware described how her 24-year-old son found his brother dead of a fentanyl overdose. A frustrated father of a dead addict said, “Nothing is going to change unless we have a community uprising.”
More than 100 in all, they sat and stood in a large circle in the quiet confines of a room in the Palm Beach County library and, through a hand-held microphone, laid out the emotional toll of the opioid epidemic.
They also let out their collective frustrations that few leaders seem to care and that not enough families are speaking out because of the stigma associated with addiction.
“Don’t let heroin win,’’ said Ed Schmidt of West Palm Beach, whose son has been battling heroin addiction for seven years.
“When we speak of shame or embarrassment, don’t feel that way because this room is packed tight. We are one community that has to speak very loudly for those loved ones.”
Several boxes of tissue were passed around the room. Many people clutched copies of Generation Heroin, the special section published by The Palm Beach Post in November with a front page showing the faces of all 216 people who died of accidental opioid overdoses in the county in 2015.
“This is our community. It is the face of our community and no one can provide an easy fix until people like us (speak out),’’ said Mike Bergman, who told the crowd that his daughter Stephanie was among the 216 faces on the cover of The Post’s special section.
“No one asks for addiction but everyone who suffers from addiction is out there crying for help and we need to answer them.’’
Dana Finegan, the Delaware woman whose son died of a fentanyl overdose in October, said, “I moved here to be with my son and he is not here, and it’s not fair. This has to stop.’’
A woman named Bev held up a photograph of a beautiful young woman and said, “This is my daughter before she was a junkie,’’ she said. “She is 23 years old. We have been fighting this for seven years.”
A mother named Kim suggested a class-action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies.
The meeting was co-hosted by Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and West Palm Beach City Commissioner Shanon Materio, two elected officials who each have been personally affected by the epidemic.
McKinlay set the meeting in motion after the adult daughter of her then-chief aide died of an overdose Nov. 18 following a long battle with addiction. A day earlier, on Nov. 17, The Palm Beach Post published Heroin: Killer of a Generation.
Included in the 216 profiles was Jewell Everson, who died Sept. 16, 2015, about six weeks after getting engaged to Materio’s nephew, Josh Weiss.
“Thank you for your bravery for being here,” Materio told the standing-room-only crowd. “Hopefully, we will get something from this evening that helps us as partners. Together is the only way we are going to make a big difference. We are not going away. We are going to figure this out.”
McKinlay is going to Washington, D.C., this weekend to attend a national Town Hall meeting about the heroin crisis. At that meeting on Sunday, McKinlay plans to share the stories she heard Wednesday night at the county library. McKinlay was so encouraged by the turnout that she plans to host another families meeting soon.
“It was impressive,’ State Attorney Dave Aronberg said after the meeting, “because here the focus was on the families and not the politicians. That is where the spotlight should be. They’re the ones who suffered the tragic losses. You can only cure an epidemic through an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
The ideas also will be shared with the Palm Beach County Commission, which is tentatively scheduled to discuss the epidemic at a workshop on March 28. On a budget workshop Tuesday, commissioners agreed to consider spending up to $3 million over the next two years to fight the crisis.
The standing-room-only crowd included 10 students from a Palm Beach State College nursing class that is studying addiction.
Also in attendance: Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson; Circuit Judge Jaimie Goodman; assistant county administrators Jon Van Arnam and Todd Bonlarron; and aides for several state and federal leaders including Marco Rubio, Bill Nelson and Lois Frankel.