Catholic Charities unites with community in the battle against opioid addiction

Keynote speaker Nicholas Kolen, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration, addresses the audience at Camden Catholic High School, Cherry Hill, with panel members Stephen Smarrito, Father John Stabeno, Wendy Nelson-Beach and Mark Pesotski, as they discuss the crisis of heroin and prescription opioid abuse.
Photo by Mary McCusker

CHERRY HILL — On May 17, hundreds gathered in the auditorium of Camden Catholic High School here for a discussion on a grim problem that communities all across the country are facing.

Police officers and parents, school officials and students, addicts and recovering addicts, parents who lost kids, and concerned citizens — all gathered to address the devastating effects of prescription opioids and heroin on individuals and families in the South Jersey region.

In his opening remarks, Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, asserted Bishop Dennis Sullivan’s commitment to combating this epidemic with an array of services for addicted and recovering individuals and their families. Louis Capella, Director of Camden County Freeholders, and Jeremiah Daley, executive director of Philadelphia-Camden HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), also pledged their support.

The keynote speaker, Nicholas Kolen, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), did not mince words in describing the challenges. “In all my years, I have never witnessed an epidemic like this before,” he said.

Agent Kolen has worked for the DEA for 25 years in locations both in this country and abroad.

In his presentation, people gasped as Kolen revealed the sobering reality of the drug problem locally and nationally, as well as what the DEA is doing to target the supply and demand problem. “Though the United States only makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, the country consumes 99 percent of hydrocodone supply,” he said, “and 80 percent of new heroin abusers start with opioids.”

Agent Kolen explained that opioids are prescribed frequently, even for minor injuries, to relieve pain. However, the numbing and euphoric effect of the drugs is too irresistible for some patients, and they end up addicted in a very short period of time, craving increasing amounts of the drugs long after the medical need for them has passed. These individuals then resort to buying illegal pills. Once that gets too expensive, they turn to the less costly but deadly heroin.

Here in New Jersey, the heroin death-rate is more than three times the national average, at 8.3 deaths per 100,000 residents. Three South Jersey counties — Gloucester, Cape May and Camden — have the highest heroin death-rates in the state.

After the keynote presentation, the audience engaged with a panel of participants involved in the fight against drug abuse.

“How do you know when you need help?” asked one audience attendee.

The auditorium fell silent for a moment, and then panelist Stephen Smarrito, a former addict, answered. “You try to conceal your problem and make constant excuses. I would come home and try to cover up the smell of marijuana with cologne. Once I started with pills, people would ask what’s wrong and I’d tell them I had a long day, or that I was tired. Then I started using heroin. My arms would be bleeding from the injections. I would make up a story about that too. And then I realized that I just couldn’t hide this anymore. And that I needed help.”

After Smarrito received treatment, his next step was to embark on the challenge of remaining sober. When asked about transitioning from addiction to sobriety, he said, “Volunteer. Get involved in the community.”

He regularly participates in a basketball league for recovering addicts where he is able to stay occupied and healthy in a supportive environment. The league was founded by fellow panelist Father John Stabeno, director of Catholic Charities’ Addiction Healing Ministry.

Another panel member, Mark Pesotski, was a pharmacist when he began abusing opiates. He explained how he eventually turned himself in, was investigated by the DEA, and has been clean and sober ever since he received treatment. He also cited his Catholic faith for saving him from his addiction while also noting that he has to be proactive every day to not fall back into his addiction.

Father Stabeno, who has devoted the last 30 years of his life to helping addicts and their family members, echoed the importance of spiritual healing. “Addiction is a mental and physical disease, but I also believe it is a spiritual disease,” he said. Many in the audience nodded in agreement.

“The 12 steps have their origin in Scripture in the process of conversion. We see it first embodied in Saint Paul’s life and writings,” Father Stabeno said. “Several centuries later, Saint Augustine fleshed out the process in his autobiography, entitled ‘The Confessions,’ where he shared his ‘fifth step’ with the world. In the book, one can clearly extrapolate each step in the process. Several centuries later, Saint Ignatius laid out the spiritual exercises which were later used by the Oxford movement. When Bill W. started AA, he used the process of the Oxford movement to write the 12 steps particularly for people recovering from alcoholism.”

Perhaps the most poignant question of the evening was directed to Wendy Nelson-Beach, who lost her son to an overdose. “How do you cope with it?”

After pausing, she said, “No parent in the world would want to sit where I am sitting today,” she said. “I attend Father Stabeno’s comfort club meetings where I meet with parents who are in the same situation. And we find strength in one another. It is still hard, I still don’t sleep, but there is hope.”

Catholic Charities’ Addiction Healing Ministry brings its social and community services to bear, offering help along a full continuum of care — from prevention efforts to treatment referrals, family counseling, relapse prevention and support — for those who have lost loved ones. For more information about Catholic Charities’ Addiction Healing Program, call 1-8555-HOPE4U.