Working to finish overdose deaths in Guelph: ‘I’ve seen the aid on individuals’s faces that we’re right here’
This may be the last year that Karen Lomax holds the position of overdose prevention co-ordinator at ARCH, HIV/AIDS Resources & Community Health, but she said it will not be the end of her involvement and passionate contributions to the community.
She spoke of her experience in a public speech at the Royal Bank Plaza, on the corner of Quebec and Wyndham Streets on Aug. 31 during an International Overdose Awareness Day event.
“I do remember thinking, when I first started, we should have a good grasp on opioid poisoning by 2022. I mean, six years is a long time to get things under control,” Lomax said.
She explained that her contract was extended to six years from the original five due to COVID-19.
“We really needed a peer going out who had experience with overdoses to tell the story and get to more places.”
During her six years, she said, “I’ve seen a shift. I’ve seen the relief on people’s faces that we are here.”
Lomax handed her purple scarf to Olivia Kijewski, from the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy as a token and a reminder that the need for drug prevention will continue, even after her position expires.
International Overdose Awareness Day, on Aug. 31, was a call to action, an opportunity to learn, and more than that, “a chance to remember the folks we’ve lost,” said Karen Lomax, who explained that on this day people can mourn in public without shame.
She said although the event tends to be populated with service providers, she is starting to see more of the families and friends of people come who have died by drug poisoning. “It is touching more lives than people care to mention, because of the stigma,” Lomax said.
After speeches, poems, a moment of silence, music and a die-in where volunteers lay down on the ground, Lomax handed out extra carnations to people she spoke with and comforted, as others put flowers in the outlines of people they chalked on the cement.
Memorials were also being made for display out of small tiles, and people wrote messages to their loved ones they had lost. The event gave the space and time needed for people to address these losses and look at the bigger picture for the community.
Kevin Coghill, pastor and executive director at Royal City Mission, explained why this is so important.
“It’s a collective sort of grieving. That’s the big thing,” Coghill said. He added to gather with others who care for the community in a special way is impactful.
Although the crowd contained many outreach workers, registered nurses and folks that work for and with ARCH, HIV/AIDS Resources & Community Health, as well as the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy (WGDS), Kate Nixon said she was glad it was a safe space for everyone to gather.
“We need to come together and tackle this,” said Nixon, who shared that she came to the event as both a harm-reduction worker and a community member with love for her neighbours.
She said the Guelph community has lost 60 people since the beginning of COVID-19. “And there’s no time to sit and process the people we are losing,” Nixon said. “The next week it’s someone else, and someone else after that.”
For James Scott Nicholson, who played guitar at the event, this year was the hardest. “Four days after last year’s event, I lost my 32-year-old son to a fentanyl overdose,” he said.
Nicholson has been clean himself for almost 20 years and said he feels guilty for not being able to help his son. He wishes his son could have gotten away from the people and places he frequented and recommends disassociation for others who are trying to quit using drugs.
He said he is grateful to still have his daughter and is “so proud of her.”
“I told her, you can have regrets like me, or you can change your life,” Nicholson said.
For more information on harm reduction and drug strategies in Guelph, please visit: wgdrugstrategy.ca and archguelph.ca.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: International Overdose Awareness Day events are an important way to help support the community and grieve with those who have lost loved ones from drug poisoning. Guelph Mercury Tribune reporter Joy Struthers wanted to attend the event in downtown Guelph to show support and learn from those attending.