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A Shelter Island evening of remembrance and hope

The more than 100 people gathered on the basketball courts off Bateman Road fell silent Thursday evening before a prayer by Rev. Stephen Adkinson, pastor of the Presbyterian Church. They were asked to remember lives ended by narcotic overdoses. In a lingering Shelter Island twilight, it was so quiet that the distant voices of children at play could be heard.

The gathering was the Island’s contribution to International Overdose Awareness Day, a ceremony held around the world every Aug. 31 to remember individuals, families and communities who have experienced the grief of overdose deaths.

Thursday was the Island’s third annual commemoration, called “Vigil of Hope 2023,” with emphasis on not just remembering, and becoming aware of the public health crisis in every American community, but learning how to prevent overdoses, treat addiction, and bring solace to those affected by drug use.

There were speakers, a prayer, hauntingly beautiful music played and sung by Julia King, and candles given to all who assembled. Registered Nurse Kelly Surerus was at a table with Narcan — the overdose reversal drug — and “fentnanyl strips,” which can detect the presence of the highly additive and toxic narcotic in other drugs.

In August 2021, Islander Swainson Brown, chef at The Pridwin, along with five residents of Southold and Greenport, died of overdoses over one weekend from cocaine laced with fentanyl.

Ms. Surerus drew a large crowd after the ceremony of people with questions. She educated them on the proper uses of both products and later told the Reporter she had distributed 20 Narcan kits and about a dozen fentanyl test strips.

All speakers referred to Islander Gina Kraus as the guiding light bringing awareness of the health emergency and hope to families who are suffering through the deaths of loved ones. Ms. Kraus inspired the town, Shelter Island School, the Lions club, the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance, and the Shelter Island Library, to commemorate those lives lost to overdoses three years ago for the first vigil, and this year’s gathering was the largest. 

Ms. Kraus has been an indefatigable promoter of overdose awareness since the death of her son Evan at age 36 in March 2020. She spoke of grief as a constant, “You sometimes just get better at carrying it. It doesn’t go away.”

The purpose of the evening, Ms. Kraus said, was to remember, and honor loved ones who have passed away, but sparking awareness in the community was the keynote of the evening, along with providing hope to those struggling with addiction. Ms. Kraus thanked Shelter Islanders for all their efforts.

The bench that honors the love of a mother for her son. (Credit: Jim Colligan)

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “an estimated 110,000 lives were lost to overdose in the 12 months ending in March 2023, with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids as the main drivers of these deaths.

Adding to the challenge of rising fentanyl-involved overdoses is the emergence of xylazine, a non-opioid tranquilizer, increasingly mixed with fentanyl in the illicit drug supply.”

Shelter Island has had 42 cases of overdoses from drugs since 2015, with six fatalities, according to the Shelter Island Police Department. This year to date, there have been six reported overdoses and no deaths. Narcan, administered by Shelter Island Emergency Medical Services teams, is primarily responsible for saving those lives.

At the evening ceremony, Islander Brett Surerus spoke to the gathering about his brother Keith, who died of an overdose in 2014 at the age of 37. Mr. Surerus brought some lightness to the proceedings, with warm and humorous memories of this brother.

But he also spoke of grief and loss, especially for his mother, noting that as the father of two children, he can’t imagine the pain of a parent dealing with the death of a child, saying that they are “a club no one wants to be a part of.” In his poignant tribute to his brother, he said, “Keith was not his addiction.”

Kathleen Lynch, president of the Board of Education, spoke of supportive communities, such as the one she grew up in, Bay Ridge Brooklyn, and Shelter Island. “All children in those places are our children,” she said, and “it is not ‘them,’ not ‘they,’ it’s ‘us,’ … grief happens to all of us.” Ms. Lynch praised the school faculty, administration, and especially the students, all of whom make the school “a safe place to build trust.”

A neighbor of Ms. Kraus, Claire Bave, spoke of her recovery, which started in 1981, and how becoming free of addiction can rarely be done alone; everyone needs help. “I was loved,” Ms. Bave said, “until I could love myself.” It’s essential to ask for help, “which can often be the hardest thing to do,” she said. “Recovery can happen.”

HUGS was represented by Jacqueline Kanarvogel, the director of training and education for the group, which helps those struggling with addiction on the East End. HUGS (Human Understanding & Growth Services), is a New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports licensed agency, defining its mission as providing “individuals, families, schools, and communities with prevention education strategies aimed at reducing high-risk behaviors among individuals while fostering wellness and positive attitudes to improve all areas of life.”

Ms. Kanarvogel noted how language can diminish a person’s humanity. “Every time we say ‘junkie,’ or refer to someone as ‘clean’ — meaning others are ‘dirty’ — we continue to stigmatize people,” Ms. Kanarvogel said. She urged Islanders to “keep growing your connections and know your local resources.”

She remembered — and like every other speaker, had moments when her voice slowed and trembled with emotion — of being pregnant and attending Evan Kraus’ funeral “praying that no one would have to live through this again.”

Ms. Kraus said, “Some days, I’m swimming along, and other days I’m drowning.” Her motto since Evan’s death is “Sempre Avanti,” for “Always Forward,” remembering daily to be strong, bringing her message of hope and recovery. She takes comfort and resolve from an Ed Sheeran song, “Boat,” and quoted the refrain:

They say that all scars will heal but I know

Maybe I won’t

But the waves won’t break my boat …

Ms. King then performed the song to the hushed gathering.

(Credit: Ambrose Clancy)