Black Poster Project addiction, overdose awareness group honors lives

play

play

Sunlight stretches through stained glass windows to reach each poster, illuminating the faces of those who have died to addiction. Rows and rows of over 320 posters fill the church as families and friends walk through the pews to read about each life.

This is The Black Poster Project, an addiction and overdose awareness group from New Jersey that travels with posters of those who have lost their lives to battles with addiction. Each poster includes the name and photo of the deceased, their birth and death dates and a short anecdote or memory of them.

“Our main goal is just to put a face to addiction,” said Sheryl Cashin, manager and event coordinator for The Black Poster Project. “So when people walk through the event, they read the stories and they get to see a personal side of the person. They’re not just a number, they’re not just a statistic. They’re somebody’s kid.”

Dee Gillen, founder of the project, began The Black Poster Project in 2019 when she did a speaking engagement on Overdose Awareness Day in Piermont, New York. Gillen lost her son, Scott, 27 at the time, to an overdose, so she decided to put his poster, along with about 50 others, behind her as she spoke. Then the numbers grew.

And then she met Cashin, who also lost her son, Eric, 34, to an overdose. Scott and Eric are buried merely feet apart in the same cemetery, where Gillen and Cashin coincidentally met one day when they were both visiting. From then on, they became a team.

“It gives us a purpose after all those years of having the purpose of keeping our sons alive,” Gillen said.

People can request a poster through the project’s website at no charge — it is a “pure and simple” process.

“We get nothing out of this but helping other people,” Cashin said. “I feel like I’m using something bad that happened to me to help somebody else.” 

‘So grateful’: Teen’s life saved by quick-acting Park Ridge school nurse and gym teacher

A remembrance in Park Ridge

The Black Poster Project hosts silent memorials all over New Jersey and New York — their latest memorial was held at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Park Ridge Thursday night.

About 70 people attended the event, including parents, friends or simply visitors. Some posters were grouped together by relationship — brothers who both died of overdoses, mothers and sons and so on.

Some of the posters had notes on top signifying an anniversary of death or a birthday. Candles sat in front of each poster, and baskets of tissue packs lined the aisles for grieving loved ones.

“When people come in and we see that reaction,” Gillen said, “that helps us to know that human empathy is alive and well.” 

In the middle of the setup were posters of overdose statistics in the nation. According to International Overdose Awareness Day’s website, 90,237 people died from overdoses from September 2019 through the end of September 2020, which is a 28.8% increase from the previous year. Eighty percent of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

Part of The Black Poster Project’s goal is to end the stigma attached to addiction.

“These weren’t loser kids that deserved what they got here,” Cashin said. “They made a mistake and they ended up here.”

After walking through the entire display, three organizations set up tables at the front of the church: Alumni in Recovery, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Justin Time Movement Inc.

Remembrances: This Bergen woman was buried alone. But now everyone has a story to share about her

A partnership among organizations

The Black Poster Project partners with these organizations to work hand in hand with the poster displays. Alumni in Recovery, a non-profit composed of young adults living in recovery, has a special relationship with The Black Poster Project.

“The way I look at it is full circle,” Gillen said. “You go through the whole display, and at the end is the recovery. It doesn’t have to be like this. This is what happened to us, and this is how you can get out of it.”

Nancy Labov, founder and CEO of Alumni in Recovery, emphasizes the importance of the grieving community and the recovery community working together.

“This disease of addiction is one that renders us powerless,” Labov said. “We have to give ourselves the tools and ability to feel that there is some way we can empower ourselves to help each other. There’s nothing more important than bringing people together in the face of crisis and emergency.”

Alumni in Recovery’s main goals are to speak openly about addiction, raise awareness, end the stigma, bring communities together in action, make a difference and save lives. The group partners with The Black Poster Project in most of its community events.

“By bringing in the recovery community to speak openly,” Labov said, “it will go a long way in the grieving community because it will give them some way to give their pain purpose.”

Alumni in Recovery volunteers speak at middle schools and high schools across Bergen County to share their stories and reach students and parents in each community.

Morgan Kennedy, a volunteer with Alumni in Recovery, says it is important to communicate with the younger demographic.

“When you’re in the room with all these kids,” she said, “they’re asking questions and being honest because they know you’re going to be honest right back. It’s a level of honesty and trust within the young community. It’s a really special relationship.”

Kennedy was at The Black Poster Project’s event in Park Ridge, sharing her recovery story and urging those struggling with addiction to take action and receive help.

“You need to have your toolbox built because you don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you, especially in the world of addiction,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy says The Black Poster Project is a great way for grieving parents or friends to find a purpose in life, and it keeps their loved one’s memory alive.

“We feel like if we continue to do this and people come and look at the pictures and even say the person’s name to themselves as they read it, then that person never really dies,” Gillen said. “They still continue to have a story to tell. And the story is: Don’t let this happen to you.”

Alumni in Recovery’s placement at the end of the poster display is intentional, showing that there is hope for those struggling with addiction.

“First, we have to show the problem,” Labov said. “But we also have to show them the solution. You can’t have dark without the light.”

The Black Poster Project will continue to hold events through October. Alumni in Recovery, along with the project, will be hosting a Paws for Recovery dog walk in Westwood on Oct. 17. More details are on the project’s website.