Heroin battler Billy Pfaff gets modest reception at MVRHS event

A small crowd turned up Friday afternoon to hear a stark message about the ravages of drug use.

Billy Pfaff spoke to a small group in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School library Friday. – Cathryn McCann

Just after the final school bell rang Friday afternoon in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), a group of about 50 adults and three students gathered in the school library. Billy Pfaff, founder of “Heroin Is Killing My Town,” an organization striving to bring community awareness to the heroin epidemic, and find treatment for those suffering from addiction, was there to speak. He was accompanied by John Greene, a Massachusetts man who lost his son to an overdose, and Amy George, a representative from Spectrum Health Systems.

Mr. Pfaff’s efforts have stirred conversation across the state and nation, and Friday, he said he hopes to “break the stigma” on Martha’s Vineyard. “If you have a heartbeat, you matter, and that’s how everyone should think about things,” he said.

Mr. Pfaff said the problem won’t go away if it’s not addressed from all angles in the community. “We need to get into the school systems; we need to work with police and fire; we need to try to get Narcan accessible everywhere … we need to help each other,” he said.

He warned those in attendance to be aware of what’s readily available in their medicine cabinets, and asked that friends and family of those suffering from addiction to not be enablers by providing comfort or monetary assistance that might encourage the behavior.

“Why I’m here right now is to wake up the community and say, Please don’t have any shame, because it’s costing people their lives,” he said, adding that one death is too many.

Later Friday night, Mr. Pfaff spoke to a crowd of over 200 people at the Oak Bluffs School. Friday afternoon, few students were in attendance.

“This room should be full; this room should be packed to that back wall, but it’s not,” Mr. Pfaff said. “For all you here tonight, know that there is a problem, and know that you have to speak up and work together to resolve it.”

Following the presentation, MVRHS guidance director Mike McCarthy said he didn’t think many students were aware of the event that afternoon, but said Mr. Pfaff touched on a lot of issues that high school administrators and Island organizations, such as the Youth Task Force and Island Wide Youth Collaborative, are trying to address.

“I think he’s hitting on a lot of points that are important to our community,” he said. “He talked about detox and treatment, and I think that’s a big issue. I think the idea of access for our students as well as young adults is a big issue.”

Mr. McCarthy said education is a major part of prevention for youth in the community.

“Knowledge is strength,” he said. “I think what he’s [Mr. Pfaff’s] saying is that we can’t stay silent about this. I think that was one of his best messages — that we need to have a voice, we need to allow kids to have the information that’s necessary to make good decisions for themselves.”

He cited one of Mr. Pfaff’s points — that prescription medications, even when prescribed by a physician, can be a gateway to addiction — as the type of information that should be more readily available to young people.

“That’s information and knowledge for the families, as well as for the students, to be aware of,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy said high school leaders are working on ways to educate students, starting with a recent school assembly. Students gathered to hear from a young man who is now disabled due to an overdose speak about his experience.

“We are trying to bring awareness at the high school, because we do have kids that have access to a lot of substances, so they have to make good decisions,” he said. “I don’t think we’re naive to this and thinking this isn’t an issue that we need to get in front of. I think the administration at the high school, as well as many more, are on this.”