Racing to color perceptions of drug abuse

With a blast of vividly-hued cornstarch, racers take off for the Chester County Color 5K Run & Walk.

Sobering statistics describe the local scope of drug abuse: Recent survey results show that 36,000 people in Chester County have a substance-abuse disorder, and one in four county residents are impacted by that number because a relative, friend or co-worker is a victim.

Chester County Commissioners Michelle Kichline (from left), Kathi Cozzone and Terence Farrell address the crowd.

Chester County Commissioners Michelle Kichline (front, from left), Kathi Cozzone and Terence Farrell address the crowd.

Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline said as she has traveled throughout the county over the past couple of years, she has heard heartbreaking accounts from multiple sources about those impacts. She said she observed a number of small organizations battling the problem separately and concluded that a unified approach would be more effective.

About six months ago, Kichline approached Chester County Chief Operating Officer Mark J. Rupsis with a question: Could the county organize an event to raise awareness? After numerous meetings and collaborations, Kichline got her answer on Saturday morning, Nov. 5, when 771 participants assembled at Everhart Park in West Chester for the debut of the Chester County Color 5K Run & Walk.

Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline (left) chats with Vince Brown, who heads the county's Drug & Alcohol Services, after the race.

Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline (left) chats with Vince Brown, who heads the county's Drug & Alcohol Services, after the race.

On a crisp fall day, the program opened with an evocative rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Kyleigh Bleacher of West Chester University. The crowd also heard remarks from the commissioners; District Attorney Tom Hogan; Jacki Smiro, the parent coordinator for the Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) organization; and representatives from two of the event’s many sponsors, Ron Williams, a partner at the law firm of Fox Rothschild, and Robert Radie, president and CEO of Egalet, a Wayne-based pharmaceutical company.

Commissioners’ Chairman Terence Farrell, Commissioner Kathi Cozzone and Kichline all thanked everyone who supported the event, a long list that included county employees, sponsors, volunteers and racers. “This event is just one way that Chester County is doing its part to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic that is plaguing us,” said Farrell.

Racers

Racers sign a banner that pays tribute to those who lost their lives to addiction as well as those who are battling the disease.

Cozzone also extended thanks to the Borough of West Chester for its willingness to provide the locale. “This event has helped us to focus on a specific need in Chester County, and by being here today, you are helping,” Cozzone told the crowd.

Kichline explained that proceeds from the race would be dedicated to coordinating a new “warm hand-off program” at area hospitals. “A warm hand-off is the direct transfer of overdose survivors from the hospital emergency department to a drug treatment provider, as opposed to merely giving them a phone number to call or setting up a subsequent appointment a day or two later,” she said.

West Chester University students Stephen Boyer (left) of Lincoln University and Jessica Blair of Landenberg pose after the race.

West Chester University students Stephen Boyer (left) of Lincoln University and Jessica Blair of Landenberg pose after the race.

During a recent gathering of 12 people, Kichline said she asked how many people had been affected by the opioid crisis, and 10 hands went up. Smiro, who lost her 17-year-old son R.J. to a prescription drug overdose in 2008, emphatically echoed that sentiment.

“Today, most people know someone struggling with addiction,” Smiro said. “I know families from every school district in Chester County who have lost a child to an overdose … Most young adults have been to several of their friends’ funerals by they time they are 25.”

Jacki Smiro (left) gets ready to add some color to the race.

Jacki Smiro (left) gets ready to add some color to the race.

Smiro said workers at the county’s five hospitals have reported that they see at least three overdoses per week. Fortunately, many deaths are being prevented through the use of naloxone, a spray that reverses the effects of overdoses caused by heroin and prescription opioids. However, those individuals need immediate intervention and the treatment facilities are often full. So far this year, 53 lives have been lost to overdoses, Smiro said – a number on track to mirror the 56 victims in 2015 or the 57 in 2014.

“We need to educate our communities,” Smiro said. “We can’t do this alone. We need each and every one of you to be a voice for your loved one or friend … This epidemic is bigger than all of us, and it’s going to take a village.”

At times, the color-blasting stations make visibility a challenge.

At times, the color-blasting stations make visibility a challenge.

Finally, Hogan explained why he was dressed in black, not the white race t-shirt everyone else was sporting. “This is what I wear when I show up at a scene where someone has overdosed,” he said, describing an image that no parent wants to see.

Hogan said he viewed the race as accomplishing three goals: issuing a warning about the magnitude of the epidemic, serving as a tribute to those who lost their lives, and, finally, celebrating the collective efforts to curb the abuse. “We are all here together to fight this problem,” Hogan said. “We will make sure that the next generation doesn’t face the same problem.”

Illustrating the family-friendly atmosphere, some participants carry extra baggage.

Illustrating the race's family-friendly atmosphere, some participants carry extra baggage.

Minutes later, the racers lined up and prepared to be doused with colored cornstarch as they left the starting line in a brightly-hued mist.

For Magisterial District Judge John R. Bailey, a member of the county's Overdose Prevention Task Force, participating in the race was a no-brainer. He said he sees cases involving drug abuse every week in Exton district court. Bailey said that he often elicits reactions of disbelief when he discusses the problem.

“Out here in Chester County?” Bailey said he’s asked. He said it’s imperative that people understand the prevalence of the crisis. “That is why what we’re doing here today is so important,” he said. "The biggest problem is trying to come up with resources. You have to have someplace for addicts to go. The last thing you want to say is 'I'll have to get back to you.'"

Jean Shavor of Downingtown is shown with her 17-year-old son Brad celebrate the completion of the race.

Jean Shavor of Downingtown celebrates the completion of the race with her son Brad, 17.

Jean Shavor of Downingtown and her 17-year-old son Brad ran in memory of an overdose victim: her cousin Brad White. And Nate Reiser of Exton, who works for Chester County’s Probation and Parole Department, said he was committed to raising awareness about the problem, particularly for the younger generation.

West Chester University had a large presence at the event. Mike Papalia of West Chester, Matt Myers of Riverton, N.J., and Brady Fleckenstein of Coopersburg were three of about a dozen volunteers from Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. Their job was to assist participants with post-race photos in front of a decorated backdrop – racers like fellow WCU students Stephen Boyer of Lincoln University and Jessica Blair of Landenberg.

Nate Reiser of Exton participated in the race with his 4-year-old daughter Kylie.

Nate Reiser of Exton participated in the Color 5K with his 4-year-old daughter Kylie.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Boyer. “And the cause really hits home,” added Blair.

Nearby, a miniature horse named Abe was generating additional photo opportunities. Abe was accompanied by Tracey Norcini, who works with the Parkesburg chapter of Kacie’s Cause, an organization started by Andy Rumford of East Marlborough Township in 2013. After losing his 23-year-old daughter, Kacie Erin Rumford, to a heroin overdose,  Rumford vowed to pay tribute to his daughter’s compassionate spirit by doing whatever he could to spare others from enduring such a tragedy.

Tracey Norcini of the Parkesburg chapter of Kacie's Cause explains the rules for being able to sign the shirt sported by the chapter's mascot: Abe, a miniature horse.

Tracey Norcini of the Parkesburg chapter of Kacie's Cause explains the rules for being able to sign the shirt sported by the chapter's mascot: Abe, a miniature horse.

On Saturday, Norcini did her part to educate the next generation. Children who pledged to avoid drugs were given permission to sign a shirt that Abe wore, one with very little white space remaining. “The kids love him,” Norcini said, explaining that she has about 30 other t-shirts full of signatures from previous events.

“Are you ever going to take drugs?” Norcini asked a group of youngsters eagerly surrounding Abe. “Nooooooooo,” they responded in unison.

Kichline said she had hoped that about 300 people would attend the event. The fact that more than double that amount supported it was gratifying as well as encouraging. “I think this is something that really resonates with people,” she said.

 

 

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.

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