Oceanside remembers those lost to drug overdose


Last year, more than 100,000 people lost their lives to a drug overdose. Since 2020, the estimated overdose deaths increased from 94,000 to just under 108000 — a 15 percent hike, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In a desperate bid to curb these numbers and raise awareness, Oceanside SAFE Coalition, along with other community organizations, held its second annual overdose prevention day on Aug. 25.

More than 60 people gathered at the Schoolhouse Green to remember those who have died to overdose by planting purple flowers.

“I can’t begin to tell you what this means to our community, to our families, to all of our friends we have lost over the years,” said Alison Eriksen, project coordinator of Oceanside SAFE, who rattled off the staggering statistics before the memorial flowers were planted.

“It’s important to recognize that when we come together as a community, we really make movements in eradicating stigmas that are associated with overdose and addiction,” she added. “Those that we have lost to overdose over the years, they aren’t just statistics. These are our friends, our family members and our children.”

Alongside Oceanside SAFE — Substance Abuse Free Environment — were members from the chamber of commerce, Kiwanis, Oceanside Fire Department, Oceanside Library and Oceanside Community Warriors. Dee’s Nursery and Florist donated the purple flowers, in recognition of International Overdose Day.

Anyone who wanted to plant flowers was invited to, with the help of the Oceanside Community Warriors. Unafraid to get their hands dirty, several participants gathered around, including some who lost someone to an overdose. Emmaus Howley said she showed up to pay tribute to her mother, who died in July.

Traveling from Queens, Howley brought her own purple flowers with her. She said she was extremely moved by the commemoration and was glad she could attend, but she said she wished more communities would hold similar events.

“Everyone goes through something,” said Howley. “My mom would always say, ‘You don’t know what happens behind closed doors.’ She was the best person I knew, and I think the best person I will ever meet. It was nice to plant something for her, in memory of her. We even brought our own flowers, and they stand out and are unique just like her.”

The Oceanside SAFE Coalition, whose mission is to prevent and reduce alcohol and drug use among youth, was founded in 2015, after noticing many overdoses that resulted in death in the community. Oceanside SAFE then formed to work toward better educating community members, parents and youth on substance abuse.

Sara Dowler, coalition chairperson for Oceanside SAFE and a health teacher at Oceanside High School, said this year’s event was even bigger than last year’s. She said Oceanside SAFE hopes hold this event every year as a reminder of the dangers of substance abuse. Dowler said the planting of flowers was “very heartwarming to see. We want to encourage people to feel supported and that they know their family matters,” she said.

Several Oceanside High School students attended the event, on behalf of their organization, the Youth Council, a club dedicated to providing education on mental health, which includes substance abuse. The students wore purple ribbons in support of International Overdose Awareness Day.

Mackenzie Sackaris, a senior at Oceanside High School and president of the youth council, said the club is known as a safe space for all students. Dowler, the club’s supervisor, said that some of the students had lost their own family members to overdose, including Sackaris, who lost her older half-brother when she was younger. Sackaris said it was difficult to see the impact the loss had on her older sister and father, adding that nobody should have to go through that.

“The stigma against drug use is not a good one,” said Sackaris. “In reality, they are people just like us who are struggling, and unfortunately some of them didn’t get to overcome their battle. It is really important for towns to have events like this to break the stigma, because so many families have lost people to overdose.”

While International Overdose Awareness Day falls on Aug. 31, Oceanside SAFE wanted to hold the event a week earlier, so that it would not conflict with the first day of school, and to make the event more accessible for the community in hopes that many members will be in attendance.

Everyone who attended was given access to free resources from Oceanside SAFE, including information on different types of overdoses, such as alcohol, opioids and stimulants, as well as other prevention resources. Representatives from Seafield, a drug and alcohol detox facility in Mineola, provided training on Narcan, the prescription medication used for the emergency treatment of an overdose.

Justine Briscoe, Long Island’s account representative for Seafield, conducted the training, explaining how to safely use the medication, which comes in a nasal spray. She also explained some of the symptoms of an overdose, as well as the New York State Good Samaritan Law, which protects from liability those who try to help overdose victims. Seafield also handed out free kits to anyone who completed the training.

“Everybody should be trained because, unfortunately, we are in an epidemic,” said Briscoe. “We have lost over 100,000 people in the last year alone to opioid related overdoses. By more people having these Narcan kits, it can potentially save lives. It is just as important as somebody (who) needed insulin.”