A night to remember

Steps to Recovery and Tony Luke Jr. host a special evening to honor loved ones who lost the battle to addiction

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

It was truly a “Night to Remember” last Wednesday evening. Locals of all ages and backgrounds came together at Steps to Recovery, a treatment facility in Levittown, to honor the memory of loved ones lost to addiction. While clutching framed photographs of sons, daughters, parents and friends, the crowd gained a bit of hope from Tony Luke Jr. as he reflected on the loss of his son. With the creation of his #brownandwhite initiative, he’s hoping to spread awareness of this issue many are afraid to address.

Spreading support: Above, Tony Luke Jr. addresses families who lost a loved one to addiction. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTOS

In honor of Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 30, the staff at Steps to Recovery knew they wanted to do something special for local families. When planning for the event began, it was initially supposed to be a small tree planting ceremony to remember loved ones lost to addiction. But after learning about Luke’s advocacy for addiction awareness when his son passed away earlier this year, they decided to email him, never expecting such a quick and positive response. With his strong following in Philadelphia and its surrounding areas, the event’s turnout was better than anyone could have expected.

Starting at 6:30 p.m., families and friends started trickling into the facility’s parking lot, where the “Night to Remember” was set to take place. At the entrance was a table filled with purple ribbons, the color for addiction recovery, and small rocks. Guests were encouraged to write the name of their lost loved one on the rock, which would later be placed under a tree during a special ceremony.

Always remember: In a special ceremony, people placed rocks with the name of a loved one who lost their battle to addiction at the base of a newly planted tree, a symbol of vitality and nurturing. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

After the crowd had some time to mingle and get settled, Steps to Recovery’s Clinical Director Manny Rivera took the stage. He asked everybody to take the hand of the person next to them, whether they were family, friend or stranger.

“We need to increase awareness and decrease the stigma associated with addiction,” he said. “The person you’re holding hands with is a human being. Remember the person next to you.”

Executive Director of the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission Diane Rosati was up next to explain how the issue of addiction can’t be solved by just the government, law enforcement or families — it’s a community effort. For Bucks County residents who don’t have the financial means for treatment or need guidance, Rosati said they can always reach out to the commission.

“We have resources for people who don’t know where to turn,” she said.

In addition to funding, the commission has free Narcan available, which can be used in an emergency overdose situation. Rosati encouraged everyone, especially those with an addicted loved one, to always have some on hand.

“Every one of you would carry an Epipen if someone was allergic to nuts,” she said.

Thanks to initial funding provided by Steps to Recovery and the leadership of State Reps. Tina Davis and Frank Farry, all local police officers are now required to carry Narcan. According to Rosati, 400 lives have been saved since this policy was implemented.

The Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission’s goal is to prevent as many deaths from addiction as possible. After losing his son earlier this year, this is Luke’s mission as well. Taking the microphone, he addressed all of the parents in the crowd whose child lost their battle with addiction.

“Did you do enough?” he asked.

His answer was yes.

“As difficult as loss is, it can be managed,” he said. “Guilt can’t.”

Luke reflected on how his son expressed feelings of weakness, and how he felt like a loser. But this was far from true. All he needed was support and unconditional love. Luke admitted it was hard sometimes to not let anger overpower him when his son stole something or lashed out, and to not question why he couldn’t just stop using.

“There is this stigma we as a society have attached to addiction,” he said.

But after some time he realized his son was there deep down. He just needed to defeat the “monster” of addiction that had taken over.

“The battle is won by inches, seconds, minutes,” he said.

To spread awareness, Luke started his #brownandwhite initiative, which are the primary colors of heroin. Using the power of social media, he encouraged families to post pictures of their lost loves ones using the hashtag. He wanted people to understand those in the pictures are more than statistics — they’re human beings.

Through the posts and personal stories, he also wanted to start a conversation on the issue so many try to sweep under the rug. There’s no instruction manual on how to stop a child’s addiction, just love, support and hope.

The evening ended with a brief ceremony around a newly planted tree outside the facility, which, according to Rivera, symbolizes life and vitality, nurturing and support. As the guests placed their rocks with their loved one’s names around the base of the tree, a Steps for Recovery volunteer sang the chilling Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” ••

For more information on Steps to Recovery, located at 1400 Veterans Highway in Levittown, visit stepstorecovery.com. To keep up with Tony Luke Jr.’s #brownandwhite initiative, follow him at twitter.com/tonyluke