‘‘The Beading Hearts," a group of moms who lost their children to drug overdoses, meet monthly with inmates at the Suffolk County jail in Yaphank to share their stories, hoping to change lives. One inmate said: "You would never want to come out of the tunnel if you didn’t see the light, and they give you the light.” Newsday TV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Anthony Florio

Monica LoVece of Bayport and a half-dozen other Long Island mothers who have lost children to fatal drug overdoses had a no-nonsense message recently for the 16 inmates sitting in the cinder-block chapel of Suffolk County’s Yaphank Correctional Facility: Despite your crimes, despite your mistakes, your lives matter. 

LoVece, whose son Mark fatally overdosed in 2015 when he was 34, and the other women are members of The Beading Hearts, a group that began in 2016 to support grieving parents who have lost children to drugs.

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Monica LoVece of Bayport and a half-dozen other Long Island mothers who have lost children to fatal drug overdoses had a no-nonsense message recently for the 16 inmates sitting in the cinder-block chapel of Suffolk County’s Yaphank Correctional Facility: Despite your crimes, despite your mistakes, your lives matter. 

LoVece, whose son Mark fatally overdosed in 2015 when he was 34, and the other women are members of The Beading Hearts, a group that began in 2016 to support grieving parents who have lost children to drugs.

As part of their mission, members travel to the Yaphank jail twice a month — once for men, once for women — to tell inmates that overcoming addiction is difficult, but they are there to support them on their journey to recovery.

“Some of you have children, friends, family, siblings, parents, and whether you think they love you or not, they probably still do,” LoVece told the inmates during the recent visit. "I hope your mom never has to stand up here. Make sure she doesn’t.” 

Beading Hearts members, from left, Karen Sweeting, Gina Kraus, Linda Nuszen, Laurie Pinka, Christina Nolan, Lisa Principe and Monica LoVece holding photos for the lost loved ones while visiting the Suffolk jail in Yaphank last week. Credit: John Roca

The Beading Hearts was founded six years ago by Linda Nuszen of Patchogue to honor her son Adam, who strung together beads to spell out inspirational phrases and words while he was in drug treatment. Nuszen and her family continued the work after Adam died from a heroin overdose in 2015, distributing the beads to other “mommys” who have lost children to the opioid epidemic that has claimed thousands of Long Island lives since the late 1990s. 

The Beading Hearts, Nuszen said, offer unconditional support to people who may have spent many years trying to help a loved one struggling with addiction, only to watch them die. Many are no strangers to Suffolk jails; some of their kids were jailed for crimes they committed to feed their addiction, the members said.

“I’ve been an addict for a very long time, so to be able to look forward rather than back, for people to give you that positive affirmation and say they believe in you, it can really make a difference,” said Walter Miller of Patchogue, who is awaiting trial for grand larceny. “You would never want to come out of the tunnel if you couldn’t see the light. They give me light.”

Lisa Principe of Riverhead said two of her children, Danny and Jenna, both served time in the Yaphank facility. Her son died five years ago from an overdose, and Jenna, too, died after him, just five days after being released from jail.

“She said she knew she’d die with a needle in her arm,” Principe said, “and she did.” 

Inmates gather to listen to members of The Beading Hearts tell their stories. Credit: John Roca

The mothers say they take their message to the jail because they are moved by a desire to protect other families from losing a loved one to drugs. 

There is no agenda for the sessions. The mothers tell the inmates about their lost kids — they were addicts, they say, but they were also smart, wonderful, loving people. They talk about how they were consumed with dread while their sons and daughters were abusing drugs, always fearing the next phone call would be from a morgue. 

The inmates say that honesty is disarming and inspiring. Deputy Warden Vincenzo Barone, the commander of the Yaphank jail, said The Beading Hearts’ authenticity has made the sessions the most popular program offered at the facility. 

Membership in the organization exploded in recent years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to conduct its weekly Wednesday meetings on Zoom, which made it possible for people from around the nation to get involved with the group. But its roots remain planted on Long Island, organizers say.

Beading Hearts founding member Linda Nuszen talks to the audience about losing her son to a fatal drug overdose. Credit: John Roca

The Beading Hearts have about 700 members and includes numerous support groups within the organization, including one for the siblings of overdose victims and another for moms in recovery. Nuszen calls The Beading Hearts a “grassroots, peer-run” response to the opioid epidemic.

 Authorities have said that the death, disease and emotional upheaval of the past two years during the coronavirus pandemic created a significant surge in overdose deaths in Nassau and Suffolk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Wednesday that fatal overdoses across the nation surged to a record 108,000 in 2021, a nearly 15% increase over 2020, which followed a nearly 30% increase in overdose deaths compared to 2019. 

The Beading Hearts began to distribute beads and meet with residents of Suffolk sober homes and treatment centers not long after its creation. In 2017, some members started meeting with inmates in Yaphank.

Member Laurie Pinka of Bayport, whose son James died six years ago from a fatal reaction to cough medicine and Xanax, said a friend — Undersheriff Kevin Catalina — recruited her to bring Beading Hearts sessions to the Yaphank jail.

“They [inmates] see the hurt in their eyes and hear it in their voices and they understand that they don’t want to see that happen to their loved ones,” Catalina said of the interaction between the inmates and mothers.

The inmates who participate in The Beading Hearts sessions are residents of the Sheriff’s Addiction Treatment Program dorm, which provides them access to drug treatment. 

“It is incredible that they are able to transform their grief and channel it into a tool to help those struggling with substance use,” Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said. “The impact of this program is unlike any other we offer — the inmates who participate are honest and vulnerable during these discussions, and the effect is truly remarkable.”

The mothers said supporting inmates and treatment center patients as they heal from addiction helps them heal, too. “We are also in recovery, we are in recovery from grief, from losing our children,” Pinka said.

Inmate Harold Kasprzyk of Riverhead said he understands the mothers' loss. His son died when he was 3½ months old from sudden infant death syndrome, said Kasprzyk, who is serving a 364-day sentence for criminal possession of a weapon, fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property and other charges. 

“They give you hope,” Kasprzyk said of The Beading Hearts. “They tell you a story. It breaks your heart. It rebuilds you.”

With Cecilia Dowd
 

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