KENT — About 4,300 people died from opioids in 2017 in Ohio, and the state was second only to West Virginia in opioid-related overdose deaths, with a rate of nearly 40 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the most recent statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Northeast Ohio community services groups — with help from area musicians — would like to see that number fall.
To help raise awareness and funds to combat the opioid crisis, Kent's Family & Community Services Inc. teamed up with local musician Gaetano "Tom" Letizia to produce the Opioid Awareness Music Festival on Sunday at the Hometown Bank Plaza in downtown Kent.
The festival was a metaphorical call to arms and a literal fundraising event for Family & Community Services addiction recovery programs that include Root House, a 10-bed recovery facility for men, and Portage Area Recovery House, a 23-bed facility for women.
The festival featured an eclectic mix of eight local bands, including Gaetano's Underworld Blues band along with Cleveland smooth jazzbos Hubb's Groove, reggae veterans Outlaws I & I, Kent's Outside Voices, Akron's Thieves of Joy and headliners 15-60-75 The Numbers Band, most of whom are friends of Letizia. For the singer-guitarist, the effects of opioids have hit hard among his friends, making the crisis a personal mission.
"I've been to several funerals. Friends, sons of friends, everybody is affected. There's nothing like this, it's worse than terrorism," Letizia said, noting that within the last month the son of one of his band members died from opioids and a friend who also lost her son to an overdose, has become a counselor.
About 100 people were in attendance, enjoying the music in the warm sun or sitting in lawn chairs or relaxing under a shade tree. Between music acts, speakers, local activists and recovering addicts spread messages about addiction and how to be supportive of those in need.
Besides live music, there were food trucks and information booths for groups including Kent police and fire, Cleveland recovery center Stella Maris and Dennis Vanasse, author of several children's books and a motivational speaker who traveled from Boston to take part.
"We have people who are really struggling and what's great is to see that the resources are out there but I think more resources need to be available and more funds to fight the epidemic because the epidemic is growing quicker than the resources," Vanasse said.
"But to seeing the community pull together for a day like this is just fascinating," he said.
Not everyone was there for the cause, however. Tiffany Poth, 25, and Corey Hyle, 26, both of Kent, enjoyed the harmony-laden, roots-rocking sound of the Outside Voices, the band that provided the soundtrack to the couple's first date. They go see the band whenever the opportunity arises. Although they weren't drawn specifically by the message, both are familiar with the topic.
"The message is important. I lost a friend last year," Poth said. "... I was friends with her for 15 years and she passed away in November."
Likewise, a friend of Hyle's overdosed two summers ago.
"And they were just 23 to 25 years old; it's definitely a good cause for sure," Poth said, shaking her head.
Organizers hope to make the Opioid Awareness Festival an annual event and would like more members of the community to show up next year.
"I'm a little disappointed in the turnout," Letizia said. "But if you save one life, isn't it worth it?"
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758