A Somber Beauty

Jacqui Morton
Issue Date: 
October, 2019
Article Body: 

2033 deep purple flags stood on the lawn of the First Congregational Church in Natick center until next spot in mid-September, each flag representing a person who died from an opiod overdose in Massachusetts in 2018. The corner of the lawn closest to the church’s walkway made a home for a smaller but powerful group of a at least two dozen red flags, each one personalized by someone who has lost someone who overdosed. Chris. Robbie. Cody. Michael. Adam. Josh. Ann. Many more. A red sign above them all read, Not Forgotten. Eileen Collett, one of the volunteer leaders of SOAR Natick, told me about the group’s efforts to raise awareness of opiod abuse. “Last year we had seven red flags, one for each of the Natick residents lost to the opiod epidemic in 2017. We found that people wished they could add a flag in honor of their own loved one, so this year we created a way for the community to participate.”
Natick, like perhaps every other community, struggles with addiction. Impacted personally by the devastation caused in their families by the opiate abuse epidemic, a small group of Natick mothers formed SOAR in June of 2014. Recently incorporated as a noprofit organization, they came together, and still do, to help one another deal with the pain of parenting a child experiencing substance abuse, raise awareness about addiction, and initiate community outreach activities. Substance abuse isn’t particularly creative or beautiful, but as Eileen shares the group’s history and mission, it’s easy to feel the beauty in the bonds made by the local parents that created SOAR.
SOAR was created as a support group that met weekly. Collet, whose son is now 25 and in recovery, says she doesn’t know how she would have gotten through his battles without SOAR’s meetings, but the group doesn’t meet as often as it did in it’s first years. Their meetings, which are attended by mostly mothers but are open to all parents, are now monthly at the Morse Institute Library; the group shifted away from weekly meetings as their attendance began to decrease. But Eileen is quick to clarify that a smaller meeting size does not mean that the problem is disappearing, “Sadly, she says, “we know that the reason we are seeing fewer people at meetings is because their children are dying. Less of them are inside with us because they are outside, represented by one of the flags. These mothers are braver than me; they have had to bury their children.”
The flag project is just one of the public awareness activities that SOAR has undertaken. About a year into the organization’s existence, its members wanted to find ways to make a larger impact. They began holding community events and bringing speakers to Natick to spark dialogue about addiction. They also purchased The Opiod Art Project, which pairs artwork with powerful audio of interviews with parents of addiction. The purple flags were an idea that was first coordinated by another mom a nearby town, who had lost her son. SOAR is not interested in recreating the wheel. “We just want people to see, you aren’t alone,” Eileen says. Last year, SOAR worked with the Natick Superintendent to display the flag exhibit at the high school. Each flag was placed by a member of the student body. “As each of the flags were placed, you couldn’t even hear a pin drop,” Eileen says of the high school. “There were more flags outside than there were students sitting inside. You could hear a pin drop as the students realized this detail.”
In September, the flag display moved to the lawn at Newton Wellesley Hospital, along route 9, but SOAR remains in Natick to help. They recently received a grant, which they are using to assist people recovering from substance abuse as they get back on their feet in what is a vulnerable time of transition. Eileen stresses, “We focus on spreading the message that recovery is possible. It is not a death sentence and there is hope. People struggling need to be loved. Rich people. Poor people. Black people. White people. This disease has taken hold. We can’t be dismissive of the people it effects or their efforts to get healthy.” Families and individuals struggling with substance abuse disorder can find resources at SOAR’s website: www.SOARnatick.org.