By Bailey McGuinn
The second annual Morris County Recovery Walk spanned less than three miles. But Glenn King covered a lot more ground to get there on Saturday.
“I’ve been in recovery for over 25 years, and God willing, Dec. 14th of this year will be 26 years,” said King, a Morristown High graduate and executive director of the nonprofit Freedom House New Jersey, co-sponsor of the event.
More than 100 people made the walk, which sought to celebrate recovery while raising awareness among people of all ages.
Public awareness is becoming increasingly vital. Abuses of prescription painkillers and the availability of cheap heroin have led to a surge of overdoses nationwide, affecting a wide swath of socio-economic groups, experts say.
Fatal overdoses in Morris County spiked from 35 in 2014 to 73 last year; this year could be even worse, with 64 deaths reported through early September, according to statistics from the county Prosecutor’s and Sheriff’s offices.
King is one of the lucky ones.
“I grew up in Morristown, did some of my dirt in Morristown, unfortunately. But I left and went away and got clean at Freedom House,” he said. “I’ve been very
fortunate to be able to come back and do some things in the community, working with the George Gramby committee. I’m just very grateful to be here today.”
Starting at Ginty Field in Morris Township and ending at Morristown’s George Gramby Memorial Park, the walk took about an hour. Proceeds benefit Freedom House of Hunterdon County and the George Gramby Observance Committee in Morristown.
Dawn Knill, marketing director for Freedom House, said some participants walked in memory or honor of someone, while others were marking their own sobriety, from years almost down to the minute.
“There is such a stigma attached to substance use disorders that people don’t realize,” she said. Victims are no longer just “the person sitting in the train station or on the corner that’s homeless. It’s our moms, our brothers, our sisters, and our kids.”
Morris County Sheriff James Gannon gave the keynote talk at Gramby Park, where walkers were greeted with live music, refreshments and an assortment of vendors.
While there is an annual statewide recovery walk, Knill explained that it’s not always easy for people to get there. So Freedom House and the George Gramby Observance Committee decided to do something in Morris County. Although it may conflict with the state walk, “I think it just helps to spread the message, you know, even more.”
‘WE’RE NOT PEOPLE WITH MORAL DEFICIENCIES’
Some walkers came from as far as Connecticut.
“A friend of ours is on the board and invited us to be a part of the walk,” said Sandra Giuffre, who traveled several hours to attend.
“We have some friends who are alcoholics and in recovery, and we think it’s a really important cause. Recovery and healing is a process, and also the transition back into a normal life is a process.
“It’s important that if you love somebody or you care about people in your life that are sick, that you support the process,” Giuffre said.
Mary Dougherty, wife of Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty and committee member for the Recovery Walk, handed out purple sashes to congratulate walkers who have completed 10 years or more in recovery.
When one participant acknowledged not quite reaching a decade yet, Dougherty offered encouragement: “One day at a time, my friend. We’ll give you one of these when you do. Congratulations!”
Walkers showed their support by wearing white- and purple Recovery Walk t-shirts, and warmed up for the event with aerobic exercises led by instructors of the Max Challenge fitness program.
EMERGING FROM THE SHADOWS
Participants were glad to emerge from the shadows.
“It’s really a disease, and a lot of people don’t get it, if they’re not afflicted, or they don’t have a family member who is,” said Lauren, a Morristown resident who will mark her third year in recovery in November.
“We’re not people with moral deficiencies. You watch people around you get better, people who came in knocking on death’s door, and now they’re working full time, and back with their kids– it’s really an amazing process. I’m really grateful to be here.”
Brian Regan, a board member of Freedom House who has been sober for 24 years, said the medical community has been over-prescribing painkillers.
That has led to younger and younger people trying to find harder and harder opioids to satisfy their addictions.
“And it’s created a whole new problem,” said Regan, a Hunterdon County native who got sober in Los Angeles.
He moved back to Hunterdon as the opioid crisis was gaining steam. “Traditionally,” he said, “there have not been a lot of facilities in the area that help recovering alcoholics and addicts get back on their feet.”
Freedom House is one such place. Based in Glen Gardner with facilities in Clinton, Phillipsburg, and Trenton, the organization was established 31 years ago to help men and women reunite with their families and resume responsible lives.
“But with the opioid crisis, it has created a whole new dimension to the drug challenges that we have in this part of New Jersey,” Regan said.
‘HE WANTED TO HELP ANYBODY HE COULD’
Similarly, the George Gramby Observance Committee hopes to address these issues in Morristown.
George Gramby, an addict, “went and got himself some help, he came back to Morristown, he went to meetings, and then he wanted to help anybody he could in town,” said Stan Prater, one of the committee’s founding members, who has been in recovery for 30 years.
With funding from the first Presbyterian Church of Morristown, Gramby started Beginnings, a drug and alcohol referral center.
“George died in 1993 of AIDS, and so a group of us that were in recovery wanted to continue to carry the message, and we started the George Gramby Observance Committee,” Prater said.
“Our mission is to celebrate recovery, and also do alcohol and drug prevention and referrals. We refer people, and we encourage people to go to meetings and get into a 12-step program.
“We’re kind of a grassroots organization, very small, and we’re here to support and celebrate recovery.”
That message needs to be heard, King said.
“People do recover, regardless of the stigma that some people may have about what an addict is. I think sometimes we put the word addict before the name, instead of putting the person first.
“The person should come first– you have a person having a substance abuse problem, they’re not just an addict. I believe strongly in the way you label a person, place, or thing because it can mean their survival.
“Breaking the stigma is a big thing, and I think that’s part of what we want to do here today: To break the stigma and support people in recovery.”