A Crisis of Epic Proportions Is Unfolding In Waterloo Region
The basketball net in the driveway is one of a thousand little things that had once brought them so much joy. Now it was just another stark reminder of unbearable loss.
Nearly six years have passed since Christine Padaric’s 17-year-old son Austin died of a morphine overdose at a party in Elmira. The family has since packed up and left their home in Heidelberg and moved back to Waterloo to make a fresh start, the basketball net and everything around it simply too painful to keep looking at every day.
The memories linger, of course. Austin will forever be the beloved teenager with a ton of friends and a heart of gold. The boy who loved to skateboard. The hockey player and snowboarder. The one who always looked out for the little guy.
The night of the overdose, he and a handful of other young people crushed and snorted morphine pills. When Austin became distressed and started vomiting, they put him in a cold bathtub, hoping he’d sleep it off. By the time an ambulance was sent for at 10.30 the next morning, it was too late.
Padaric understands that there is widespread shame and stigma surrounding opioid-related overdoses and deaths. But her story is different. Austin wasn’t an addict. And she believes that if the others who were doing drugs that night hadn’t been afraid to call 9-1-1, her son would be alive today.
“I’m not shy to admit that Austin smoked a lot of pot,” she says. “But I believe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I believe it was peer pressure and a one-time deal that turned out very, very bad.”
After her tragic loss, Padaric threw herself into learning as much as she could and educating others about opioids and other drugs. Six years later she’s still talking, although it’s not always easy to get an audience willing to listen. Parents — and by extension schools — are often reluctant to hear what she’s got to say.
“If it could happen to my family, it could happen to anyone,” Padaric says. “They say the ambulances are going out to the suburbs and the nice homes just as frequently as they’re going to the downtown core. Overdose and drug use do not discriminate. You can’t profile someone. It’s everywhere.”
Stigma and shame
As a community leader that recognizes and responds to crises while empowering others to be proactive, United Way Waterloo Region Communities is keenly aware that the opioid crisis is being felt in each of the seven communities it serves: Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo, Wilmot, Woolwich, Wellesley and North Dumfries.
A little over a year ago, United Way led a community conversation about the shame and stigma surrounding opioid-related overdoses and deaths — and at the event’s conclusion, CEO Joan Fisk announced a commitment to raising $50,000 for an Opioid Fund to help address the issue.
That initial goal was surpassed in November 2018, thanks to a substantial response to the organization’s Giving Tuesday campaign which, along with $10,000 in matching funds provided by a generous United Way donor, created an initial investment of almost $60,000 to fight the opioid crisis.
The Opioid Fund is one of 4 targeted funds developed by United Way to provide donors the opportunity to direct their gifts to a cause they are passionate about. This new approach to fundraising not only gives donors greater control over where their dollars are invested, but also gives United Way the agility to respond to issues as they emerge.
The organization’s other three funds - Ending Isolation, Supporting Youth, and Fighting Hunger – address the isolation felt by seniors and individuals with disabilities; the overwhelming need for mentorship and mental health support for vulnerable youth; and the food insecurity experienced by 1 in 10 households across the Region of Waterloo.
“This crisis is very real,” Fisk says. “We are trying to lead the conversation to put some more humanity into it. The reality is that opioid abuse is complex. This is a really gritty subject that we can’t ignore. It’s something that’s so desperate, which is why we’re trying to partner with people who understand the problem and to work with the community to support people who are going through it.”
As fundraisers embedded in the communities it serves, United Way’s goal now is to determine how best to use a targeted funding approach to support and elevate the work already being done.
Half the money has already been granted to The Working Centre to support the collaborative Water Street House Network. The Water Street House will be an inclusive, welcoming space where people who use substances can rest and access harm reduction supports, primary health care, and a relationship-based approach to mental health and addiction. In the coming months, United Way will seek other projects in order to grant out the remaining $30,000, ensuring support is available for programs and services that find ways to tackle the crisis, and most importantly, save lives.
In her role overseeing how funding is distributed, United Way Senior Director of Community Investment Nancy Bird focuses on careful stewardship of donor dollars. “United Way doesn’t pretend to have all the answers,” she says. “We give out a significant amount of money but we’re just part of the puzzle. Understanding how that part fits with the rest of the puzzle is really important.”
United Way, she adds, is open to new initiatives through new and existing partners. “We as leaders in the community need to get to the table and find out how are we going to fundamentally work differently together to change the experience for these individuals,” Bird says. We’ve seen as a community that once we start talking about it, it gives more people permission to talk about it.
“Most people are using drugs to end the pain that they are feeling, whatever that stems from. Whatever they start with, at some point if they are in the throes of addiction, they are not the same person anymore and they are choosing whatever is most available, easiest to find, affordable.
“Sometimes we feel we’re a little bit immune to some of these issues in Waterloo Region. We’re not. This is a much bigger issue than people thought because it’s been hidden. This is not a one-agency fix. It’s not a shelter problem. It’s not an addiction-services problem. This really is a community issue.”
Opioid use growing dramatically
According to Region of Waterloo Harm Reduction Manager Grace Bermingham, the region has seen a dramatic increase in the use of opioids. Since 2003, the number of opioid-related deaths has increased by 94 percent, and in January alone, local police responded to 75 suspected opioid overdoses and 10 deaths — the highest number ever reported in one month.
As someone on the frontlines of the issue locally, Bermingham has been deeply involved in studying the complex reasons behind drug use. She believes misinformation is a huge part of the problem.
“This issue is affecting people across the socioeconomic demographic,” she says. “Overdoses can happen to anyone: people who have been using drugs for a long time, a youth who’s using drugs for the first time, people who have been in rehabilitation and then go back to using after a period of abstinence.”
Which begs the question: If the issue cuts across every demographic, why aren’t people talking about it?
“I think stigma is the No. 1 reason,” Bermingham says. “There’s a lot of shame in being addicted, and with that shame comes an unwillingness to speak with loved ones and health-care providers. There’s a lack of understanding about what drug use is and why it happens. It’s very complicated. There’s a fear in being identified as someone who uses drugs and being able to openly talk about it.
“We need to reframe this as a public health issue. It’s going to take that to really begin to make some long-term changes. If we are not able to do that and the stigma is perpetuated, all the issues we’re seeing right now will grow and it will be more difficult to make the inroads we need to make a change.”
Learning from tragedy
Six years after her own heartbreaking loss, Christine Padaric is still working to make sure some good comes from her family’s tragedy.
While dedicating her time to support groups and education initiatives, she was also instrumental in getting what’s known as the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act (Bill C-224) passed into law. Bill C-224 essentially means that anyone who calls 9-1-1 in an overdose situation will be immune from prosecution.
Padaric would like to see a more intentional push to educating young people before they get into their 20s and 30s when, she says, it’s simply too late.
“I don’t see anything going toward education,” she says. “It’s a struggle to get into schools because there’s just no funding. Parents need to push for it. We’ve got to get to the kids when they’re young. I believe in educating kids when they’re open to hearing about it. It still shocks me how many people don’t know the Good Samaritan Act exists and are still afraid to call.”
She also wants people to know what to do when someone is overdosing. “You need to be able to recognize it for what it is and know what to do,” she says. “In Austin’s situation there were seven people who sat around and watched Austin and hoped and prayed he would sleep it off. That’s a fallacy. It’s not something you sleep off. They were afraid to call 9-1-1. They were under the influence themselves. There were so many factors. But if you make that decision beforehand — that you’re going to do the right thing — you’re more likely to do it.”
Cause for optimism
According to Bermingham, there is reason to hope. She points to the parallels in how society once treated mental health, and how change was a long time coming. “It took a lot of work to have people talk about mental illness as a health issue,” Bermingham says.
“This is not an ‘us versus them’ issue. This crisis has been incredibly painful for many people who’ve been touched by it either personally or through a loved one. People have experienced a lot of loss and trauma.
“But what I’m also seeing in our community is some great cross-sector planning — collaboration that has been strengthened between public health, housing, policing, paramedic services, school boards, municipalities — and I think this is incredibly optimistic. Waterloo Region has always been good at collaborative planning and developing strategies that cut across those sectors. Through this work, our community has really rallied.”
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