To Cheryl Canter, the brick bearing her son’s name is an acknowledgment that he existed — that he mattered, and that his story can help others in their fight against addiction.
Russell Dane Canter died of an overdose Aug. 12. And Saturday, a month later, his mother and brother stood amid a crowd of others who have lost loved ones to the same epidemic, sharing tears and smiles.
“It’s hope for me, I don’t want anyone else to lose a brother,” said Randy Canter, Russell’s brother, of the garden in which his sibling is memorialized. Randy has been in recovery for two years.
The Canters were among more than 200 people who congregated Saturday at Recovery Fest, an event put on by the McShin Foundation in Henrico County to celebrate National Recovery Month and dedicate the new memorial garden commemorating loved ones lost to the disease of addiction. Many wore T-shirts that read “Make Recovery the Epidemic.”
The pandemic and resulting isolation have added fuel to the overdose epidemic. The state is on pace to exceed the 1,626 overdose deaths recorded last year. In the Richmond area, emergency calls for non-alcohol-related overdoses are up nearly 65% in the first half of 2020.
The event, which in other years might draw closer to 1,000 attendees, was limited to 250. Temperatures were taken at the gate. People played cornhole, listened to speakers, grilled burgers and walked around to tents.
Organizations represented included Narcotics Anonymous and Alive RVA Warm Line, a hotline to peer recovery specialists. One tent housed an opioid overdose treatment clinic.
John Shinholser, president of the McShin Foundation, said the event and garden are intended to serve as communal spaces for grieving and processing among people who have lost loved ones and experienced similar trauma at the hands of addiction.
“We help with grieving, it’s a connection to community,” Shinholser said. “It’s so important for people to realize that recovery is abundant, it’s out there. This takes place all across America during the month of September.”
Laurie Wade is a co-founder of Lost Dreams Awakening, a recovery community based in Pittsburgh. She traveled with other members of her organization to see McShin’s memorial garden, because they’re planning to build a similar space.
“I came to McShin to see how they did it. While we remember those we’ve lost, we fight for those still in recovery,” Wade said.
Wade is an advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement in the recovery community, and seeks to spread awareness about how the disease of addiction disproportionately affects people of color.
“People don’t want to talk about it. There’s a lot of systemic racism in the treatment and recovery community — they want to talk about stigma and not recovery,” Wade said.
Jill Cichowicz lost her twin brother, Scott Zebrowski, to an overdose in 2017. Cichowicz visited Zebrowski’s brick in the garden Saturday along with 11 family members, including her mother, Linda, and two young sons.
Linda said one of the last things her son told her before he died was that if something happened to him, he didn’t want his family to be ashamed to tell his story. Cichowicz helps run A Night For Scott, an annual local fundraiser for the Scott Zebrowski Scholarship Fund.
“We’ve cried every day, but we hope we can save somebody else’s life by telling Scott’s story,” Cichowicz said.
Dan Schneider has made it his life’s mission to save other people’s lives by sharing his son’s story in Netflix’s “The Pharmacist,” a documentary series detailing how Schneider has used his grief to help others heal.
Schneider’s son, Danny Jr., was fatally shot at the age of 22 while trying to buy crack in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in April 1999. Schneider came to McShin’s event to speak, share his story and see a brick in the garden bearing his son’s name.
“I get a chance when I travel to tell my story, and if I can save a life in the process, it’s well worth it. [Addiction] is still horrible, and it isn’t getting better. This is a camaraderie of people who have lost their kids,” said Schneider, gesturing around him to the people milling about the garden, some smiling, some crying and hugging over bricks commemorating their lost loved ones.
“If we can get those people to stand up, maybe we can make a difference.”