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‘We’re losing a whole generation’: Families mark International Overdose Awareness Day

Crosses for Change memorial now numbers 209 crosses representing those who died from addictions

It was on Sept. 8, 2020 — nearly one year ago now — that 22-year-old Myles Keaney passed away from an accidental drug overdose in front of the fire station in downtown Sudbury.

His mother, Denise Sandul, erected a white memorial cross for Keaney in the place where he died. She began inviting others who had experienced similar losses to put up memorial crosses in the same location.

As the number of crosses multiplied, the memorial was moved with city permission to a prominent municipally owned site in front of Sudbury Theatre Centre, at the busy Brady-Paris intersection. 

There are now a total of 209 crosses included in the memorial — known as Crosses for Change — each representing someone’s loved one who has passed away as a result of their struggles with addictions. 

Many of those bereaved families and friends gathered at the Crosses for Change site Sunday in advance of International Overdose Awareness Day, which is Aug. 31.

Sandul said it was the first time she’s been able to hold an event at the site due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

“During this global pandemic, within it we have an epidemic ourselves,” she told those gathered at the event.

“We’re losing a whole generation of people we love and miss. Our goal was and still is not just to have a site where we can mourn those that we lost, but to bring light, and hopefully change for this crisis.”

She said Crosses for Change is not meant to be a graveyard. It’s a place to remember people’s loved ones, and it’s a “great visual to show how big the problem is.”

It’s also not a permanent memorial site, although Sandul is hopeful the crosses will remain in place indefinitely, at least for now (the site is being considered by the city for a future arts centre building).

Sandul said the stories of those represented by the cross are all touching. 

“Their stories are all unique, and the one thing in common is that everyone here who has a cross was loved and is missed beyond measure,” she said.

The mother said she dreads the one-year anniversary of her son Myles’ death, because she feels like people will think that after a year, it’s time to move on with her life.

“But it’s just not that way,” Sandul said. “It’s not that easy, particularly when you lose a child. Some of these people have lost a mom and a dad, a wife or a husband.”

One of the people who attended the event was Stacy Wright, who spoke to while spending some time in front of the cross erected for her son, Jonathan Cole, who died May 4, a few weeks short of his 22nd birthday.

Cole died out in British Columbia, where he was working. He had a cardiac arrest, and they took too long to bring him back, so he was put on life support. Before he passed away, he was able to be an organ donor, saving the lives of five people.

Wright was told that the events that led to her son’s death were caused by an overdose. 

“They said that it was, so I’m assuming it was,” she said. “I’ll never know.”

She said having a cross dedicated to her son, Jonathan, in the Crosses for Change memorial means a lot. 

“Some people are too shy or don’t want anybody to know about their family member, but it is what it is, and I just want him to be celebrated, no matter what,” Wright said. “It’s shocking how many people are here, and how many crosses keep going up every day.”

One of the people invited to speak during the event was Samuel Wynne-McAugahey, a volunteer with Teen Challenge, a faith-based addictions treatment program. 

He spoke about his own struggles with addictions. 

After challenges in his life, including the sudden death of his father from cancer, and experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder as a paramedic, he began using drugs.

“I wanted to unsee the things I saw as a paramedic, so I smoked a fentanyl patch,” said Wynne-McAugahey. 

“That was the next eight years of my life — addiction. So I had everything, but I also lost everything. Within six weeks, I lost everything, my home, everything I had. I was living on the streets.”

With the help of treatment at Teen Challenge, Wynne-McAugahey has now been clean for two-and-a-half years. 

“What I’m really trying to say here is, if I can get clean, anybody that we see on these streets in Sudbury can also get clean,” he said. “There is hope for us. There’s hope for every single person out there, OK?”

A number of local politicians joined those participating in the event, including city councillors Jocelyne Landry-Altmann, Deb McIntosh and Bill Leduc, as well as Sudbury MPP Jamie West.

West encouraged those at the event to sign a petition asking that the provincial legislature declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency in Northern Ontario, and commit to funding local addictions resources, including a supervised consumption site.

“I’m concerned with the number of deaths that we’re having, that they just become numbers, and not people,” he said.

“When we walk through the crosses, and you see the names — and I was able to talk to some of the families about their loved ones that they lost, and their connection to them — we have to remember that these are people.

“We have to remember — and I’m preaching to the choir — there are people in this city who miss these people that we lost.”

He praised Sandul for the Crosses for Change initiative, saying she reminds her of other Sudburians who have refused to accept the status quo, and demanded change.

That includes Wendy Fram, the mother of Jordan Fram, a Vale miner who died underground a decade ago along with colleague Jason Chenier after a fall of rock. Fram successfully pushed for updates to Ontario’s mining regulations.

Sudbury was also once told it would never have a cancer centre or a PET scanner, but we now have both of those things thanks to Sudburians who wouldn’t accept no as an answer, West said.

“There are times when you are faced with tragedy, and you mourn in different ways,” he said. “And some people when they mourn, they fight back and raise awareness.”

In case you’d like to take part, Réseau ACCESS Network will be holding its own International Overdose Awareness Day event Aug. 31. 

Representatives of the agency will be set up outside of its office on Medina Lane, providing training on overdose awareness and response, dispensing naloxone, providing education on safe supply and providing those who wish to remember their loved ones with an opportunity to take a purple ribbon, a pin and also sign a flag in their memory.

Learn more on the agency’s website.

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Heidi Ulrichsen

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