Annual event sheds light on overdoses, addiction recovery

Sep. 1—Kokomo resident Nichole Bentley said that when her brother Josh would laugh, the sound could echo around the entire room.

He was a strong and loyal man, she added, devoted to family and to making sure that those around him felt loved and included.

But on April 17, 2022, Josh's laughter fell silent. His smile faded.

"My brother, he was left on the streets of Indy to die," Nichole said. "He was given a 'hotshot,' mass amounts of cocaine and mass amounts of fentanyl. It was inserted into him. He didn't take the drug himself."

According to the American Addition Institute, a "hotshot" is a type of drug often laced with other more deadly substances, like fentanyl or carfentanil.

Josh was 39 years old.

Nichole remembers the phone call she received about his death.

"I heard Josh's name, and I heard the word 'coroner,'" she said. "And it just hit me so hard."

In Josh's memory, Nichole — who herself is in active recovery — wrote a tribute to her brother on a banner Thursday night at an annual event in Foster Park commemorating International Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31).

Every year, friends and loved ones of those who have lost their battles with drug or alcohol addictions gather at the park to remember and reflect.

"It's not a joke out there," Nichole said. "You get in the streets, you think you have that next day to live, and you're gone. I didn't think Josh would be gone, but he is. ... There's so much more that's important in life than just sitting around looking for your next high. That's your family, your kids, your life. Love yourself. That's the main thing, is loving yourself and know that you are somebody because it can take over you. And before you realize it, in the blink of an eye, you can lose everything."

But while Wednesday's event — sponsored by Turning Point System of Care — gave families a chance to come together and remember those who have lost their lives due to struggles with addiction, organizers say it was also an opportunity to reach those who are currently in the middle of the fight or need assistance walking through addition recovery.

Over a dozen booths were set up around the park, covering everything from nonprofits and government organizations to churches and individuals.

Shaun Odom works with the organization Groups Recover Together, and he said events like Thursday can be critical to a person's recovery journey.

"Just to show the living proof that recovery is possible but also to remember the people who aren't here today, I think that's the most important thing about tonight," he said prior to Thursday's event.

And for Odom, active addiction and subsequent recovery from substance abuse isn't just something he has seen in others.

He's lived it himself, he explained.

"I'm in my fourth year of selling real estate," he said. "But eight years ago, I was sleeping behind a gas station with milk crates lined up. I'm very passionate about recovery. I have over 6-and-a-half years of sobriety, but I had to start somewhere. I'm able to do things today that I told myself, I stigmatized myself rather, that I'd never do or never become. So something like this event tonight, it's super important.

"I just wish people knew that it (addiction) is a disease," Odom added. "You take somebody that's diabetic and don't give them insulin, what happens? They get worse. You take somebody who's struggling with alcohol and addiction, and you don't give them resources, then where's the hope for them? We (society) need to realize that there's always somebody out there struggling with something and not getting the support they need. So we need to help them find that support."

Ruth Kozienski is a clinical social worker with First City Recovery Center in Kokomo, a clinical residential and detox facility that offers inpatient and outpatient programming.

"I think something like this absolutely raises awareness," she told the Tribune during Thursday's event. "And it also impacts the stigma that we face every day with mental health and substance abuse issues. I think it's crucial for people to be out and about and sharing their stories or journeys. The more we can shed light on the issue, the more people we can reach."

Kozienski added that she was also excited to see the turnout at Foster Park on Thursday evening, noting it's indicative of those within the recovery community.

"We all work together," she said. "That's such a special thing to witness. We work together to provide the best services that we can. If one place can't help a person, another place will be able to. We really share that journey, and I think that's definitely crucial to anyone's recovery process."

Maria Green, manager of marketing and community development for Turning Point, agreed with Kozienski.

"This is beautiful," she said, "because there are so many people that do care. You see it everywhere tonight. I've always had a passion for recovery, but I've never actually seen the impact that people can have on a community like I do here."

Green then took a few moments to speak directly to those individuals who are currently in active addiction and wanting to find a way out.

"Every day is a new day," she said. "Every day you wake up, you have a new chance to choose recovery. I would say that's huge. People backslide all the time. We see it so much, and the most important thing is continuing to take that step. Even if you take 10 steps back, as long as you continue to take one step forward, you're going in the right direction."