Stars come clean about drug abuse.
At first, the atmosphere in the Tsongas Center at UMass-Lowell Tuesday morning was lighthearted.
By Lisa Kashinsky
About 4,500 students from middle and high schools throughout the region and state packed the arena, chatting animatedly, snacking on popcorn and fiddling on smartphones. The lights dimmed. Radio DJs came out to amp up the crowd. James Wahlberg, of the famed Wahlberg family, came out to cheers and applause.
The mood quickly turned serious as Wahlberg, executive director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, spoke about the day’s message – making healthy lifestyle choices and steering clear of drugs.
It was all part of the Massachusetts Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness, put on by the Wahlberg foundation, supported by Gov. Charlie Baker, and geared toward teaching youngsters to make positive, drug-free choices in the face of the opioid epidemic gripping the state.
“It’s an absolute epidemic. Every single day we lose people,” Wahlberg said, noting how he’ll read of drug overdose deaths in the obituaries of newspapers. “Enough is enough.”
Wahlberg’s mission with the event was twofold – to give families who’ve lost loved ones to substance abuse a “platform for them to be heard,” and to bring awareness directly to the youth in order to promote positive change.
“We’re trying to create an army of kids who are positive, who are prepared to pressure their friends in a positive way,” he said.
To help that message sink in, Wahlberg brought together a coalition of those impacted by substance abuse, from former Patriots players to law enforcement representatives to parents who have lost children.
Former Patriots player and three-time Super Bowl champion Troy Brown spoke about the “all-out war on addiction.”
“Back then, all we had was the words ‘just say no,’” Brown said. Today, with video-driven media, “you can see just what can happen to you,” he said.
Brown said he once used Percocet, which includes oxycodone, an opioid pain medication, following a surgery. He ran out of pills and went to a drug store late at night for a refill.
“The best thing that happened to me was they said ‘no,’” he said. The next time he had knee surgery, he turned down the drugs. “My very first answer was ‘no thank you. I’ll deal with the pain,’” he said.
Brown said after his speech it was important to deliver these messages to teenagers, and to show them that it’s not hard to fall into addiction or substance abuse issues.
“We play a sport where guys get hurt, take a pill, ask for more,” he said. “We’re big strong football players and it can happen to us.”
Matt Light, another former Patriots player and three-time Super Bowl champion, stood alongside Brown backstage and expressed a similar sentiment.
“It’s a message they need to get out for these young people to associate with,” Light said. “We’ve dealt with it too. We understand what it’s like to go through this.”
Then there was Jeff Allison — a Peabody native and former pitcher who was a first-round draft pick of the Miami Marlins. He chronicled his path into substance abuse for the students in the arena, from OxyContin to heroin, to his eventual overdoses.
The Marlins tried to put him into treatment, he said, “but I wasn’t ready. Addicts have to be ready.”
In the end, Allison got clean, and, as of just a few days ago, has been so for 10 years now.
“There’s always a way out. If you want there to be a way out, there is a way out,” he said, urging students to talk to their friends, parents and school counselors if they needed help.
Throughout the nearly three-hour long event, students listened, including the 70 middle and high school students attending from Haverhill. Andover, North Andover and Greater Lawrence Technical School were also listed as sending students to the event.
They snapped cell phone photos of the famous speakers, but watched the video “If Only,” the Wahlberg-produced film that tells the story of two teenagers battling addiction, raptly.
As the film ended with images of people holding photos of family members who were victims of opiate addiction flashing on the arena’s screens, about 100 people walked across the stage to do the same, standing stoically with the images of their loved ones clutched in their hands.
The students remained silent as Louise Griffin, an advocate and founder of the Zack’s Team Foundation, spoke. Her son, the foundation’s namesake, died of an opiate overdose in 2013. Griffin spoke powerfully to the students, telling them that addiction is a disease, “not a moral failure.”
Standing backstage at the time, Jon DeLena, assistant special agent in charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration in New Hampshire, thought the message was sinking in.
“Right now it’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop because they’re all listening to that woman speak,” he said.
DeLena took the stage later to walk students through the realities of drugs, from websites selling fake prescription pills to the dangers of heroin and fentanyl.
He was also there with others from New Hampshire to get information on staging a youth summit of their own in the spring.
“There’s not a better way to get the message out to kids than by bringing them into one room,” he said.
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