A whiteboard in the front of a meeting room at the Centre County Courthouse Annex had a small sign that read, “In Loving Memory.”
Beside it, beneath it, around it were pictures. They were the images of people who had a lot of life left to live. They were the images of people who lost those lives to heroin overdoses.
The pictures were part of the Centre County HOPE Initiative’s vigil, a ceremony to remember those lives, to share their stories and try to give their deaths meaning by making them part of a solution.
The Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education Initiative grew out of the public response at meetings to discuss the heroin problem that has been described as a national epidemic. It includes a long list of representatives from county agencies as well as Mount Nittany Medical Center, local emergency service providers, the Centre County United Way and the YMCA of Centre County.
“These were good people, intelligent people, hardworking people,” said Cathy Arbogast, assistant administrator for Centre County Drug and Alcohol. “They could have been part of an amazing future for our community.”
For some parents, that is the most important message. The people struggling with the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania aren’t the people you think they are.
“We thought we knew what ‘junkies’ looked like,” said Al Pelliccioni, of Bellefonte.
He remembered when people dealing with addiction were seen as more obvious. It was startling to find out that his daughter Katharine was one of them. She was just 24 when she died, and heroin hadn’t been a part of her life for very long.
“My daughter passed away 14 months ago,” said Katherine’s mom, Apryle. “I speak in the hope of grabbing at least one person’s attention.”
Katie Bittinger knows what the Pelliccionis are going through. Her daughter, Emily Rossman, died four years ago. Like them, she has been open about her loss and the opioid problem, especially in places where people don’t expect it. She sees talking about it as important.
“It helps. It puts a face with the reality of what is happening,” she said.
Both families described the loss the same way. The day their daughters died were not just the days they disappeared from their lives. They were the days they became something else: statistics.
Those statistics are stark.
Gene Lauri, director of Centre County Criminal Justice Planning, said 21 people died due to drug overdose in 2016 in Centre County. In 2017, the number is seven so far, but those are just the deaths that are verified as overdoses. Sometimes drugs are present but the cause of death is listed differently.
Centre County Commissioner Steve Dershem thinks the vigil is important for another reason.
“We do a lot of work in prevention and education,” he said. “This is a way to help support the healing for the families.”