ANDOVER – Dena Dargoonian stood with her husband and their youngest daughter on the stage in The Park Saturday, speaking in a voice that pressed through pain and paused to gather itself one month removedfrom the death of daughter Kali Dargoonian at 27 years old.
“The life of a beautiful person shouldn’t have to consist of heartbreaking overdoses, arrests, probation, fear, homelessness, loneliness or anger,” the mother said. “We lost our battle September 18 when I found her. It only takes one time. Arrest the dealers, not the addicts. Listen, learn and educate yourselves. Stop this addiction and this epidemic.”
Between music sets Saturday at the Andover Cares Festival came pleas for people to understand heroin addiction. As addiction wages a destructive undertow, dragging the footing from underneath those afflicted, it too tugs families apart from anchored bonds, speakers said.
Saturday’s event was a positive step toward solid ground, where music, stories and support offered a lifeline to those in need. The death rate from opiate use in Andover in 2015 has far eclipsed last year’s rate, rising 400 percent, from two people to eight people. There have also been more than 50 overdoses.
Among Saturday’s performers was Hayley Jane and the Primates. The lead singer, Jane, had a personal connection to the heroin awareness event. Jane said she has lost four friends to opiate use in the last year. Music is a healthy way for people to connect with each other, as opposed to heroin induced attempts. “It’s a less scary way to get in touch, music is such a healing thing in and of itself,” she said in an interview.
Among the several hundred people who attended the Andover Rotary Club sponsored event on a crisp fall afternoon were three Andover friends, all recent Andover High graduates. “We know people who have passed away from overdoses,” said Meghan Day, explaining why they came. Friend Rob Moeller said he is a recovering addict who found recovery nine months ago through Alcoholics Anonymous and was curious on Saturday to hear about others’ paths to recovery. Friend Melissa Jones, who left a note of encouragement and card in the bandstand at a station set aside for people to express their thoughts and feelings, said Saturday’s type of event was a first for this town. “This is the first time I have ever seen Andover do anything like this,” Jones said.
Event organizer Paul Salafia, a Rotary member and Board of Selectmen member, said Saturday was grounded in awareness — taking positive steps to prevent addictionand help those who are addicted heal. He sees it as a springboard for more of the same. Salafia introduced three local people on the front lines in the heroin epidemic, Youth Services Director Bill Fahey, Fire Chief Michael Mansfield and Police Chief Patrick Keefe. “People are falling at their feet,” he said. Fahey urged people to recognize addiction is a disease, a health issue, and not a matter of a choice for addicts. He urged people to help those with the disease overcome it and to support the families during their struggles.
People who came to Andover Cares were there for that reason. Karen Held, an Andover mother, stood in the audience with her 4-year-old daughter, Anna, in her arms. “It’s tragic,” she said of opiate addiction. “It affects people close to us. People in our backyards. Sometimes yourself. Everyone.”
Lisa Lacourse, an Andover mother, brought Bandit, the family’s 1-year-old Saint Bernard dog, a shameless love hound, to add to the support. He rolled in the green grass, and let people rub his belly. Support and music equals unity, Lacourse said. “I think it sets the tone,” she said. “The music keeps you on a positive note.”
It’s a novel approach tofighting addiction to heroin.
“That’s the idea, have a fun event where we can celebrate not the crisis itself, of course, but that we are coming together to do something about it,” Don Gottfried, Rotary president said in earlier interview.
The headliner act was Jon Butcher Axis.Local performers included Andover-raised singer andsongwriter Casey McQuillen and “Steel Amp,” four 12-year-old friends from Andover’s Real School of Music. The friends, Zack Nepomnayshy, Kenny Tong, Alec Dempster and Cameron Lapierre, came on the stage after Dena Dargoonian spoke. Another of the musical acts was the Teen Challenge Choir. Before their set, member Jonathan Hahnl told the audience he came from a good home with loving parents in Lynnfield. Before his recovery, his addiction left him living on the street in Lynn, robbing and using drugs, and losing the trust of loved ones.
In Dena Dargoonian’s talk she said that the family tried every way they could to help Kali get clean. She toowanted desperately to recover. “Heroin affects the entire family,” she said. “Sleepless nights and worries, the arguing among family members, the struggle was pure hell.” Salafia was among several people who hugged Dena Dargoonian after she stepped from the stage to the grounds. “I told her I was proud of her,” he said. He told her it took courage to speak about the family’s deep loss and what she did will save lives.
All proceeds from the free five-hour event went to the Andover Cares Fund, which, in turn, will award grants to programs that support Andover’s three-tiered solution to opiate addiction — education, treatment and enforcement.
The fundraising has been a success. The Rotarians had hoped to raise $40,000 in their first year. To date they have raised $45,000.
The club will post applications for its grant funding on its website starting in January. A grant review committee will review the applications and award funding from $500 to $10,000.