It took nearly 10 minutes for Tracy Smith to read names of people who have died from drug-related overdoses.
Smith, founder and president of Speakers for Change, led Thursday’s International Overdose Awareness Day event on the Ventnor beach, where about 200 people gathered to remember their loved ones and reduce the stigma around addiction.
“We are losing our loved ones at an unbelievable rate,” Smith said. “We’re here to create awareness and talk about what we can do to make a difference. We’re also here to remember.”
The global event is held each year on Aug. 31 to bring attention to addiction, especially the growing opioid epidemic that took more than 900 lives in New Jersey in 2015.
Experts say the death toll continues to rise.
A crowd of people with signs and candles honored loved ones in Millville on Thursday night as others in Ventnor wore white in remembrance of their mothers, fathers, children, nieces, nephews, partners, neighbors, co-workers and others who lost their battles with addiction.
Tanisha McKenzie, of Egg Harbor Township, spoke about losing her sister to a heroin overdose more than a year ago.
“When I heard she passed, it was like an out-of-body experience,” she said. “I had never thought that I’d have to go home without her.”
McKenzie said she welcomed anyone who wanted to talk about their loved ones to her, as she said talking about it can only increase the awareness and bring people together.
Others who attended and spoke at the event included Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo; Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman; Mary Corona, who spoke of losing her son; Gineen Dimari who spoke about her nephew and advocacy work; Ted Khoury, a local coach; Sue Buonomo, a Parent To Parent coalition founding member; and Kathy Gitto, who spoke of losing her daughter to addiction.
The event was put on with help from Join Together Atlantic County, an addiction prevention and education coalition within Atlantic Prevention Resources.
Ventnor participants recited the Serenity Prayer before throwing white and purple flowers into the ocean in remembrance of loved ones.
Eric Dua, of Atlantic City, and a person in long-term recovery, ended the speech part of the evening by talking about how although thousands have been lost to addiction, he had hope that those continuing to struggle with the disease would find treatment and recovery, too.
“In the audience, raise your hands if you’re in recovery,” he said.
About a third of attendees put their hands into the air.