TOWNSEND -- Reeling from the loss of a child to the opioid epidemic, three moms banded together with three others to form North Middlesex Cares to raise awareness about the dangers of prescription and illegal opioid abuse and addiction.
The nonprofit group has a simple strategy to fight this complex social issue. They have broken it into two parts: "to reduce the stigma and to educate people," said Lauren Geanacopulos, president of the group.
"The stigma," she said, "keeps family members from discussing it and makes addicts too ashamed to admit they need help."
NM Cares challenges that paradigm by bringing the message to the forefront. They set up booths at public events, stage presentations at area schools, meet with law enforcement and provide resources, all while also serving as a resource.
"Addiction is no longer confined to dark alleys and drug houses, so why should the cure be?" Geanacopulos said. "Last year in America, more than 70,000 people died from overdoses. And this year will likely surpass that."
As a reminder of the loss, she carries a memorial card from her 32-year-old son's funeral with her at all times.
"One way to reduce the stigma is to stop using the word 'junkie,'" she said. "That's such a horrible word that serves to reinforce public perception of addicts, adding to their shame.
"We reach out to people at public events, or in private if they want, to let people know of the vast resources and supports that are available. We are the nexus, but sadly very few parents attend our events or even interact with us when we set up booths.
This attitude, Geanacopulos said, perpetuates the shame.
Townsend Police Chief Rick Bailey endorses the group.
"They take an active role in trying to bring the issue to the public, to eliminate the stigma attached to opioid abuse. They have been well received in the community," he said. "It's hard to measure their effectiveness, but I'm sure they've reached a few people.
Geanacopulos also cautions that it isn't just those with heavy addictions who are dying. Casual drug users are dying accidentally from overdoses of prescription pills and from cocaine laced with the highly dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl and its next-generation counterpart, carfentanyl, which is even more lethal.
That is why NM Cares emphasizes so highly the importance of educating people, rather than focus on the dangers of drugs.
"People already know they're dangerous. We want to educate them on how to have conversations about addiction and drugs, how to speak with their kids and how to open up. We want to teach parents how to recognize the signs and what to do from the early stages," Geanacopulos said.
By operating on a local level, NM Cares can focus its attention and resources on the immediate community. They're not trying to change the world, just their corner of it.
"Parents mistakenly think that once children graduate from high school and move on, that the risk is over. That is not true by a long shot," Geanacopulos said.
Her son was 25 when he began using drugs.
"There is no finish line," she said.
Funded mostly through government grants as well as local civic and church groups, NM Cares uses its grants and donations to produce pamphlets and other literature that helps push the message.
On Sunday, Aug. 26, the group will host the third annual 5K run/walk -- to "set the pace for prevention" -- which starts at 9 a.m. from the Townsend Public Library. Details about the race and the organization are available at the group's website, www.nmcommunitycares.org, or on the NM Cares Facebook page, www.facebook.com/nm.cares.
"The police have been great, many of them are parents, too," Geanacopulos said. "They would rather help a person than arrest them, but that's not always possible. It's the dealers and the smugglers and the pharmaceutical manufacturers that need to be held accountable."