BRICK – Two hundred and sixty-three posters featuring photos of people were on display recently at Windward Beach Park. The people in the pictures came from all walks of life, and varied in ages, but all shared one thing in common.
The display was not for art but to present, literally, the face of addiction showing these individuals as they truly were. Enjoying hobbies, at family gatherings or milestone events. It was part of the Black Poster Project designed to raise awareness through lives lost to the disease of addiction.
The project was described by its founder Dee Gillen as a labor of love created after she experienced the loss of her son, Scott, to a heroin/fentanyl overdose at the age of 27. It began with a simple post just prior to Overdose Awareness Day in 2019. She encouraged other loved ones to share their pictures and it grew.
The posters have been on display in various local events. Sometimes it is a full display, and sometimes it is a smaller grouping of photos. Each photo allows people to look at their faces and learn about them. They were daughters, sons, parents, musicians, athletes, performers and more who just wanted to lead happy lives.
Among the posters and the family members present for the afternoon program was the family of Misti Autumn Strauss who died on December 11, 2015. “It is beautiful to get awareness out there and to show their lives. They all had beautiful stories. They have booths set up here today that show different resources available,” her mother Ann Strauss of Eatontown said.
“People see drug addiction as evil but these people aren’t evil. Many are kids and they are humans and many were in the wrong spot with the wrong people at the wrong time,” she said.
“I’m wearing my daughter’s shirt, I’m her voice now,” she added. She said Misti’s addiction problems existed for only around two years. “I didn’t know and when I found out I tried to help her right away and she tried to help herself too. It overpowers them. She said ‘oh mom I know what I’m doing. I’ll be okay. I know what I’m doing,’ but it got worse.” Misti died at the age of 27.
“That is what they say: ‘I got this.’ My daughter got into drugs after she met a boy who tricked her into it and laced her cigarettes. She got out of it, went to rehab and then she met another guy who said just snort this and she was dead two years later,” Gail Sturr, Toms River said. Her daughter Tanya Eileen Sturr died two years ago.
“My daughter died at 33,” Sturr said. “She got an infection from shooting the junk in her legs. It went to MRSA and sepsis and later organ failure.”
Sturr pointed to another poster, “that’s my sister’s brother-in-law he died in the 70s, Charlie Lagraca. Their nephew died too. He went out on Thanksgiving and came home and lied down and was dead. It affects anyone. There is someone out there that you will know that it has happened to them or their children. It is everywhere.”
“This is very emotional,” Sturr added. “It is surreal but it is helpful. She is missed by many. She was a very funny person and had a good personality. She had cleaned up her act for five years and was fine until she met this other guy and that was the end of her. It changed her personality.”
Gillen and Sheryl Cashin of Fair Lawn were pleased to see the turnout for the day’s bittersweet event. Gillen said that during an Addiction Awareness event held last year, “the group that was hosting the event offered to do these posters for the families and they made 40 posters back then and then we just kept it going after that. It grew little by little.”
“When COVID hit all our community and school events stopped so we came up with quiet memorials. So for overdose awareness month this year and we decided we would go on the road and take silent memorials to any town that will let us display them,” Gillen added.
Gillen said, “on August 1 the display featured 120 posters and now we have 263. People just ask us to do it and we don’t ask for anything from the grieving families because they have been through enough. We rely on outside donations to pay the costs for it and people have been really compassionate about that. We were able to come down to do this here today and it’s great.”
Cashin works with Gillen on the project. “Dee and I met at the cemetery. Our boys were buried a few feet from each other. Dee had asked if I wanted a poster made of my son and I said yes and started helping out. This is our way of getting out to show this side of the story. It is important to put a face to addiction and that it can happen to anyone. The last few years of their lives may have been bad because they were facing addiction but that is not who they were.”
Those seeking further information or who wish to support The Black Poster Project can e-mail email@example.com or call/text 201-906-9055.