The New York City Shatterproof 5K Walk recently raised over $800,000 to fight addiction — and Darien families were very much part of the team.

“It is a wonderful thing that Darien families came out in such support for this Shatterproof (Rise Up Against Addiction) event.” Betsy Jones, whose family represented Team William, said.

Shatterproof is a national nonprofit organization based in Connecticut that is dedicated to helping families deal with their addicted loved ones. CEO Gary Mendell lost his son Brian to addiction.

It was nearly a year ago that the Jones family lost their son and brother William on Christmas Day at 25.

His family is determined to carry on his passion for giving back and service that they and many others say defined his life.

In explaining why the walk was important, William’s sister Julia said it was “an opportunity for every person who has been affected by this epidemic to come together and raise one another up with the hope and motivation to fight against addiction.”

She pointed out that Darien has experienced losses due to addiction up close, with four young men being represented at the walk.

“This run is an opportunity to enlighten, support and drive our country into a healthier and safer place to live,” she said.

Teddy Gray’s mother, Sabele Steuert, said Teddy was brave and courageous every day of his life.

“He cared about every human being in every walk of life. He had a million friends all over the world who loved his energy and charisma from the minute they met him. We are shouting out loud and clear to end the stigma of addiction and its root causes,” she said.

A public health crisis

According to Shatterproof, in 2017, 70,237 Americans died from drug overdoses. On average, drug overdoses now kill 192 Americans per day.

Darien resident Holly Jespersen, who serves as Shatterproof’s senior communications manager, told The Darien Times earlier this year one of the organization’s main goals is to remove the stigma and shame of addiction.

Part of the reason for the rise in addiction and overdoses, Jespersen says, is because those who suffer from dependence on opioids, when unable to access prescribed meds, are buying them on the street. Often, these street opioids are laced with fentanyl, which, Jespersen says, is a deadly combination — literally.

The Centers for Disease Control affirms that this is the “worst drug overdose epidemic in [U.S.] history.” And the problem has grown so severe that, in 2014, the CDC added prescription drug overdose prevention to its list of the top five public health challenges. Three illnesses and deaths related to substance use disorders are at epidemic levels right now, and it’s quickly getting worse.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 2017, there were 955 overdose deaths involving opioids in Connecticut — a rate of 27.7 deaths per 100,000 people, which is twofold higher than the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people. The greatest increase in opioid deaths was see in cases involving synthetic opioids (mainly fentanyl): a rise from 79 deaths in 2016 to 686 in 2017. Deaths involving heroin also increased from 98 deaths in 2012 to 450 in 2016 but saw a decrease in 2017 to 425 deaths. Prescription opioids were involved in 273 deaths in 2017 — a more than fourfold increase from 60 in 2012.

Purdue Pharma

Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy in September, an expected move linked to a multibillion-dollar settlement plan reached last month with some two-dozen states and approximately 2,000 cities and counties suing the company.

Hearst recently reported that Connecticut and 23 other states have asked that the court handling Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy let them keep pursuing their claims against the OxyContin maker and the Sackler family members who control the firm.

The joint filings earlier this month by Connecticut and the other states argue that the company’s request to halt for 270 days their lawsuits against Purdue and the Sacklers — whom they accuse of siphoning as much as $13 billion from the company — would shield them from accountability and complicate a restructuring of the firm. Purdue officials disagree, asserting that their request to stay the complaints would save many millions of dollars in legal fees and help protect the value of a business that the Sacklers have already offered to relinquish.

Community response

Following a profile story of the Jones family’s journey in The Darien Times in May, members of the community reached out with reaction.

One of those is Bill Mitchell, whose family owns Mitchells of Westport, and Huntington, N.Y., are men’s and women’s specialty stores.

Mitchell told The Darien Times he’s been sober for 29 years after seeking help for alcoholism. He said his family has “lived with this disease.”

While at one point, early on, Mitchell said he felt a stigma in admitting he was a recovered alcoholic — today, it is something he is proud of.

“My recovery saved my life in that it gave me a life,” he said.

Today, having taken a step back from actively working at the stores, Mitchell helps young people struggling with addiction. He sits on the board of Sacred Heart University and works with its collegiate recovery program.

In the story in May, Betsy Jones discussed the challenges of the addiction stigma. Mitchell said those struggling with addiction should realize its “OK to say you are in recovery.”

Today, Mitchell says the only thing anyone ever says to him when he says he is in recovery for 30 years is “Congratulations.”

Referring to a public speaking engagement in which one of his sons talked about how when Mitchell was in the throes of alcoholism, their relationship suffered.

“Today, he said, ‘He’s my best friend.’ That is what recovery does,” Mitchell said. “One Day at a time.”

State Rep. Terrie Wood said she and her husband Jay have known Betsy and Bill Jones for many years.

“That the Shatterproof event they participated in memory of William was such a success is no surprise.

“Their work to support those in the grip of an opioid addiction is emblematic of their commitment to community and helping others. Their support and efforts will, no doubt, make a big difference,’ she said.

Darien Sport Shop President Gina Zangrillo, who supported Team William in the walk, said she felt compelled to support this cause because the loss of a child is something no parent should have to endure.”

“As a mother myself, I can’t imagine how devastating this has been for the Joneses. However, I am inspired by their willingness to help raise awareness to prevent other families from a tragedy. We live in an incredible community and hopefully this walk will help bring everyone closer together,” Zangrillo said.

Finding meaning

Sabele Steuert said taking action “is what Teddy would want us to do — not sit still and pretend it doesn't exist, but take action like the good Samaritan he was and taught us to be. This is his legacy to all of us touched by him.”

As the Jones family continue to cope with their loss — they find comfort in supporting and promoting some of the initiatives that William was involved in.

The family also want to continue to dispel the stigma of addiction.

“Addicts need not be ashamed of their disease. They need the community’s love and support like any person who is struggling with an illness. They should not be ashamed to ask for support.“

The family is proud of what William was able to accomplish so much despite his life being cut short.

“William was trying to affect change in a very positive way, just like Shatterproof is trying to do today.” Betsy said.

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