A year ago, the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse was contained to a single room in the Glen Head Community Center. On Saturday, the organization packed a park at Tappen Beach. “It’s completely overwhelming,” said Joanna Commander, observing the space with tears in her eyes.
As NSCASA’s adviser, Commander has worked with community stakeholders over the past year to organize programs to address and deter substance abuse on the North Shore. At “We Are CASA: A Day of Wellness,” the coalition fulfilled its goal of transitioning from a group into a community.
“Our organization has begun the start of a conversation about substance abuse in our community, and that’s a conversation we want to keep going for the long term,” said Alison Cammardella, NSCASA’s sector coordinator. “We want to make sure everybody feels invested in the fight to make a change.”
The coalition hosted a day’s worth of wellness and education programs to engage every sector of the public. Yoga, meditation and fitness classes put participants’ minds at ease. Children played basketball and flag football in the park. Experts from the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the North Shore School District provided prevention information to passersby. And residents contributed to community murals by painting, stitching and drawing works of art.
“We offered these alternative activities for people to become exposed to and get involved in,” Commander said. “It gives us an opportunity to bring people in and give them ownership.”
In the center of it all was a remembrance wall. Each of its panels had a sign decrying the coalition’s mantra: “I am CASA . . . You are CASA . . . We are CASA.” Here, attendees were invited to share their experiences with substance abuse in anonymous written messages. Using a chalk marker, John Brala drew a heart for his son, Shaun — a North Shore graduate who died in 2012 from a heroin overdose. He was 21.
Like many other families, the Bralas had not imagined that substance abuse could drastically change their lives, but what they realized after Shaun’s death was that the problem was much bigger than one person, or one community.
“North Shore, Roslyn and Jericho have lost a lot of kids and adults to this, but unless it happens to your family, nobody wants to acknowledge it,” Brala said.
His wife, Lisa, was absorbed by the day as she watched the community come alive with involvement. “Today means everything to us,” she said, her voice wavering. “For many years, the community thought this problem happened somewhere else — they did not believe it was happening here. Today means, yes, we acknowledge that there is a problem.”
For NSCASA’s executive director, Kevin McGilloway, the event’s significance rested with the anonymous stories spelled out on the remembrance wall — stories with which he is all too familiar.
“My daughter is 28, and since she graduated from the high school, she’s lost three classmates,” he said. “Everybody should see that substance abuse is our problem, and we can be the solution. We can save lives, but we can only do it by everybody working together.”
Among the bustling crowd of parents, teachers, civic leaders, children, students and elected officials, McGilloway said one part stood out: “The principal theme here is hope.”