WESTFIELD – Westfield Promise students past and present, and teacher Kristen Biancuzzo, pulled out all the stops for the premiere of the original student documentary, “Breaking the Silence,” about the impact of the opioid epidemic at Westfield . Three years in the making, the film debuted June 11 at Westfield High School with an interactive art exhibit and panel discussion that ran for an hour after the film.
Beginning with welcoming students Layla Bermejo-Verdugo, Adedunni Soyele, Sandra Odunukwe, Cailyn Crean and Brooklyn Borges, who greeted moviegoers on a red carpet at the entrance, the high school was transformed to bring information, hope and inspiration to the tragedy of addiction and loss.
Before the film began, visitors were taken to the art exhibit in the cafeteria, which featured pieces from the broken bowl project, photographs taken by students to inspire commentary that will be turned into poetry, and Wall of Hope signs, where family members and friends had written poignant messages to loved ones who are struggling or lost to drug addiction.
The broken bowl project is taken from the Japanese art of Kintsugi pottery, mending broken pieces and creating a whole beautiful new piece.
“It is recognizing that the scars that life brings to us do not make us ugly but rather transform us into something of great beauty,” according to the description of the exhibit.
The bowls on display were made by people associated with the “Breaking the Silence” project, all of whom have experienced some sort of trauma or great difficulty to overcome this year.
Visitors were also invited to decorate bags of luminaries that lined the exit walkway.
Year two Ella Hamel, who contributed an original song to the film, played her ukulele and sang songs as people viewed the exhibit. Hamel will be enrolled at Westfield Promise next year.
Aid agencies lined the hallways between the cafeteria and the auditorium, including Tapestry, which is opening a new office at 17 E. Silver St., Westfield, in the coming weeks. Employee Robert Ortiz said the office will distribute Narcan and other harm reduction items such as clean needles, as well as referrals to programs.
Also in attendance were Jessica Bekech from Westfield Against Addiction, an active Facebook group that offers information and encouragement to community members, and a representative from Learn2Cope.org, which offers online support groups in English and Spanish. and will begin in-person meetings. in Eastampton. DART, which stands for Drug Addiction and Recovery Team, and provides drug and addiction training for police officers, also had a table. A DART staff member said 17 Westfield police officers had received the training.
Kathi Cotugno, the former CORE (Colition for Outreach Recovery and Education) co-ordinator at Westfield who will now work for DART, was one of the panelists who spoke and answered questions after the film. Cotugno was also interviewed in the film, providing insight and speaking as a mother who lost her son Adam to a fatal overdose in February 2016.
State Senator John Velis was also interviewed in the film, recalling the weekend in 2016 when the community of Westfield lost three lives to fentanyl-containing drugs, just weeks after he became Rep. of the city state. He said it was the most difficult period of his time in government service. Both Velis and Mayor Michael McCabe attended the premiere.
The interviews in the film were conducted by Westfield Promise students three years ago with claimants, family members who had suffered a loss, a member of the Westfield Police Department and people recovering. Introducing the film, Biancuzzo said they didn’t know then how much the production would face, including shutdowns due to COVID-19 and broken equipment.
However, from the first grade 11 students at Westfield Promise English who started the project, some of whom attended the premiere, subsequent classes have continued it, writing original songs, poetry and the script for the documentary.
Biancuzzo credited Ben Roberts, a Champlain College student whose mother works at Westfield High School, for taking the hundreds of hours of footage and editing it in 40 minutes. She also apologized to people whose footage could not be used, saying their participation also contributed to the film. She thanked everyone who made it possible for 16-year-olds to interview them for the film.
In addition to Cotugno, panelists who took questions after the film included Maria P. Sotolongo, Director of the District Attorney’s Drug Diversion and Treatment Program in Northampton, Constable Gary Hagar, Community Policing Officer Eric Hall, firefighter and EMT Ben Hogan and Tapestry’s Gabe Quinones, who also spoke as a recovering person. Westfield Promise student Lily Taglieri, who also designed the ‘Breaking the Silence’ poster, served as moderator.
One of the themes of the Q&A period was the potency and lethality of fentanyl. Quinones said the pills bought on the street are no longer pharmaceuticals, but fentanyl designed to mimic pharmaceuticals. He said that since fentanyl does not convert well in the stomach, drug users will snort it, which will kill them.
Cotugno said fentanyl was present in 93% of the 2,119 fatal overdoses in Massachusetts in 2021. She also said substance use disorder is a mental illness and not something people can overcome without treatment. nor help.
“Look around you. Everyone must be treated individually. It’s your life; we try to help. It’s a crisis in this country, and we need to talk about it. Spread the word,” Sotolongo said.
The panelists also gave recommendations on ways and resources to help loved ones.
“As someone in recovery, ask them what their needs are right now,” Quinones said, suggesting talking one-on-one and helping arrange counseling.
Several people have recommended having Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose, more widely available.
“Narcan is a rescue medication like an EpiPen. Always call 911 – it doesn’t last forever,” Hogan said. Narcan is available through Tapestry, DART and the Police Department, he said.
Hall said it was different for everyone, adding that if there was a formula it would be easier.
“Stay away from vapes, booze and cigarettes. Be friends with your friends,” he said, addressing the youngsters in the audience.
Hall said that as a 48-year-old who has never had a drink, he and his best friend since seventh grade, who has been in this together, have done it all together. He recommended speaking to Westfield High School adaptation counselor Carrie Fiordalice, who is also interviewed in the film.
“Say no the first time. Don’t do it, say no. I know it’s hard to hear, but this might be your last time,” Cotugno said.