Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie

Sue Willette gets emotional when she talks about the struggles her sons have had with drug addiction, but she is determined to tell the story.

“I have to,” Willette said. “It is too important not too.”

Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie
Sue Willette (Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie)

Willette, of Meriden, was one of the organizers of the first annual Roadway to Hope, a walk and rally attended by hundreds that was held this past Saturday at Hubbard Park in Meriden.

Most of those in attendance, like Willette, had or have family members who have either died or are suffering from drug addiction, most heroin or opioid addicts.

Willette’s oldest son, Jonathan, 25, was arrested a year ago after police seized more than 2.4 pounds of heroin from him. Cops called it the largest heroin bust in the city’s history.

“Jon,” as Willette likes to call her son, is “currently incarcerated” in her words.

Her other son, Chris, 21, also struggles with the same drug addiction issues as his older brother.

To Willette it is no surprise that heroin and opioid addiction seems to be grabbing more than its share of headlines and attention from politicians in recent months.

“It’s impacting everyone these days,” Willette said. “Everyone has or knows a family who has a member battling addiction.

At Saturday’s rally, people walked through Hubbard Park, shared stories with each other of loved ones battling addiction, listened to music by the bandstand, and stopped by displays of many organizations whose mission it is to fight drug addiction or to lobby for legislative action to fund programs to combat addiction.

The coalition — calling itself “Fed Up!” — notes that Aug. 31, 2016, is “International Overdose Awareness Day,” according to information on its website. In recognition of the day, members of the coalition will hold rallies in municipalities across the nation, and have asked that local organizers volunteer to host rallies as well.

Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie
Charlene Corvi, center, holds up photos of her deceased son Toriano. (Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie)

Since Aug. 31 falls on a Wednesday, Willette said her group opted to host its local walk on the weekend prior, when it’s more likely people would be able to attend.

One of those in attendance Saturday was Tina Conley, also of Meriden, who lost her son Matthew to opioid abuse two years ago at the age of 27.

“No parent should have to bury their child,” Conley said wiping tears from her eyes. “What my son went through really opened up my eyes. I don’t want to see another family suffer the way mine has.”

Another family who lost a son to drug addiction was also at the rally, showing their support for the cause. Charlene Corvi said her son, Toriano, died two years ago at the age of 25, from opioid addiction.

She said events such as Saturday’s walk and rally “are important to help spread the message that this is a problem that isn’t going away. I am here, my family is here, for my son,” said Corvi, who carried around a poster with pictures of her son on it.

Statewide, annual overdose deaths spiked from 357 in 2012 to 723 in 2015. Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, who was in attendance at Saturday’s walk and rally, said the rise in deaths has been dramatic in Meriden — stating there were 41 overdose deaths in 2015, up from eight just three years earlier.

Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie
Tina Conley holds up a photo of her son Matthew (Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie)

Bartolomeo, co-chair of the legislature’s Committee on Children, said she has been meeting regularly with police, fire and first responders in Meriden, along with parents who have children dealing with addiction issues, “and it has made me realize we have limited services available to those who are addicted to opioids.”

Bartolomeo said there is a need in the upcoming General Assembly session “to treat this growing addiction issue as the front burner problem that it has become.”

Bartolomeo noted that the General Assembly, in the recent session, did make some progress in the battling the epidemic — passing legislation placing a 7-day cap on opioid prescriptions in an effort to reign in what many called the “over-prescribing” of painkillers.

There is an exception clause included in the bill for those receiving long-term prescriptions from their doctors allowing them to exceed the 7-day cap.

The legislation also requires first responders to be trained in the use of Narcan and to carry and dispense it. The drug is injected into patients to counter the effects of opioid and heroin overdoses.

Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie
Narcan in nasal spray form on display Saturday (Jack Kramer / CTNewsJunkie)

Bartolomeo said that over the past few years the issue of drug addiction has moved from being one that has primarily impacted the “less fortunate to a bigger problem that is now impacting all segments of the population, including the middle and upper classes.”

Bartolomeo’s assessment was supported by Leslie Carlson, also of Meriden, who said that she has had two siblings pass away due to drug and alcohol abuse, and said she herself was an addict in her 22nd year of recovery.

Carlson said: “People are talking about this more and more now. Drug addiction is a real big problem and it’s getting bigger. Also, the addicts are getting younger and younger.”

“Kids are bored these days,” continued Carlson. “So they begin experimenting and soon they are hooked.”