Churches, school districts and students are forming a new front against the opioid crisis on Long Island as they prepare for their first event next week.
The Long Island Covenant to End the Opioid Epidemic was developed over the past year by a multifaith coalition with the goal of providing “pastoral care and support” for victims of substance abuse after clergy had become frustrated with the number of deaths resulting from overdoses in their congregations.
“It’s an exhaustion and also an anger from having to do so many funerals for so many young people,” the Rev. Eric Olsen, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Plainview, said. “That’s really what I believe began to weigh heavily on me.”
Olsen had shared those experiences with other clergy from nearby churches, said the Rev. Gideon Pollach, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring Harbor. This inspired them to form the covenant, with an emphasis on offering a supportive voice, not a judgmental one, to those affected by substance abuse.
“The overdoses are the final sign of a crisis that’s been unfolding for a long time,” Pollach said. “But not many people were calling their clergy before it got to that final stage where a funeral was needed.”
The group will have its first event, Action Against Opioids, on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington. The event, along with the anti-opioid covenant, was organized by Long Island Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods, a multifaith coalition of religious organizations working to improve communities on Long Island.
“There’s been a core group of active congregations laying the groundwork for the event,” said Joe Morris, lead organizer for Long Island Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods. “We’re asking for other congregations to show up and be ready to make the commitment. I don’t think we’ll know until Wednesday how many we’ve got.”
While organizers said they are unsure how many will turn out for the event, the covenant has received the support of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, and Bishop Lawrence Provenzano has said that he will attend the meeting.
“We are experiencing this, across the diocese, as a real epidemic,” Provenzano said. “A number of our clergy have reported that they’ve done the funerals of teenagers who have died from overdoses.”
Pollach is one of the leaders of churches in Huntington and Oyster Bay involved in the covenant’s leadership. They have all been personally affected by the ways in which the epidemic has made their congregations suffer, Pollach said.
One parishioner told Pollach about getting addicted to opioids after getting a prescription for them following surgery. “Another parishioner shared with me the other day that they had just been to a funeral for their own nephew who had overdosed on heroin,” Pollach said.
School districts and educational officials have also become involved with the covenant, and have drafted policies for K-12 substance abuse prevention, which will include the availability of the narcotic overdose medication naloxone, or Narcan, in schools.
“It certainly makes sense for us as a district that includes a high school with 1,500 students to expect the unexpected,” said James Polansky, superintendent of the Huntington school district. “Should there ever be an episode where you can save a life, you have that opportunity to do so.”
Provenzano said that Narcan is a public health lifeline comparable to a defibrillator.
Students from several Long Island school districts will also attend the Action Against Opioids event. One group of students plans to launch an anti-substance abuse social media campaign, which they call “myhigh,” at the event.
Jessica Bianco, 14, a freshman at Locust Valley High School, along with her sisters Diana, 16, and Caitlin, 13, created the campaign to emphasize positive alternatives to taking illegal drugs. The campaign is to host an Instagram page with videos produced by fellow students, and will work to make the hashtag “#myhigh” trend on Twitter.
“Students will post videos saying something like ‘My high is surfing’ or ‘my high is solving a really long math problem,’ that shows that there are better things to do other than drugs,” Bianco said.
The covenant plans to reconvene in six months to evaluate the results.
“We know the experts can’t fix it. Law enforcement can’t fix it. Government can’t fix it,” Morris said. “Not that we can fix it either, but we know that our congregations and schools have a role to play.”