Photo of the east side entrance of Vernon Park on Germantown Ave. Photo by Rasheed Ajamu.

Next Saturday, an event is remembering people who died from drug use and seeking to reduce stigma by building community connections. This event is called “Always Beside You.” It will happen at Vernon Park on May 14th from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m.

Bereavement care provider, Kaitlin Worden, explains the name of the event has a dual meaning. The first is that the loved one a person may lose is always beside them spiritually. The other sense describes the community a person doesn’t always see in the aftermath of a drug-related loss of a loved one due to isolation and stigma about drug use. 

Worden works for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Division of Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction and is the organizer of this event with the support of the Friends of Vernon Park. She works with the medical examiner’s office conjointly and is tasked with outreach to families that have lost a loved one due to a drug-related issue. 

When questioned about the support of the event, Angela Miles of the Friends group said that as volunteer stewards, the group’s goal is to “foster an environment of peace, growth, balance and a community of care throughout each season — for the park itself and all the things that grow and bloom, and for [their] neighbors and everyone who comes through.” 

“My hope is that people leave the event feeling more connected to each other because they might understand that they aren’t alone in a very isolating type of grief,” Worden says. “But my goal generally is to highlight that this is something that needs to be talked about, empower people, and give people tools with which to do it themselves.”

Worden recognizes that she is a young white middle-class, cisgender woman trying to bring awareness about this issue to a predominately Black neighborhood. While she strives to be a connector of people and resources, she also understands the need to begin these conversations in Philadelphia neighborhoods that aren’t commonly attributed to the opioid crisis. 

Penn Medicine researchers documented that more white Philadelphians died of opioid overdoses before the pandemic than Black residents, which flipped starting in 2020. The number of Black people dying from overdoses spiked by 50%, while the number of whites dropped by 31%. The spike was attributed to racial inequities aggravated by the pandemic, which is also credited to heightened gun violence, job loss, and small business closures. The Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office also reported that the 19144 section of Germantown was one of three neighborhoods with the most significant percentage increase in unintentional overdoses in 2020. Kensington is commonly mentioned as one of the epicenters of the opioid crisis in Philadelphia, but Worden says the focus shouldn’t just be centered there.

“It’s not the only place these deaths are happening,” Worden states. “It’s inside people’s homes, people are using alone, people aren’t talking about it, it’s not being highlighted in the news, and the resources aren’t there.”

She notes that one possible way to hinder the spread of the epidemic is grief care as preventative care. “You would be shocked to know how many people die from a drug overdose or a drug-related death a month after somebody really close to them has passed,” Worden expresses fiercely. She says the inability to talk about grief as a society, and healthy coping mechanisms, is one of the many ways stigma is added around the issue of drug use and drug-related loss. She hopes that this event can help spearhead that conversation.

She quickly notes that grief shouldn’t be centered around the death of a loved one as well. Grief can come from the dissolution of friendships, losing a job, and even gentrification. Worden connects these to the concept of safety and how the loss of anything that makes a person feel safe can be a “huge” deal for a person.

The May 14th event will open with dialogue amongst residents who wish to share and listen to stories about loved ones who died from drug use. Attendees are encouraged to bring clothing, pictures, and other memorabilia to decorate pennants that will be displayed throughout the park. There will also be a discussion with spiritual and community leaders about the effects of stigma and loss in the Germantown neighborhood. Attendees will learn how to prevent future loss and receive resources.

Miles says the Friends group appreciates Kaitlin’s idea and that they have a commitment to cultivating care, and that “holding space to share stories and help connections bloom, to gain resources and insights, reduce stigma and reduce harm with a gathering like this cultivates goodness and enriches our shared experience.”

Residents are also encouraged to register for and attend the Love Your Park park clean-up, which will prelude Always Beside You in Vernon Park on Saturday, May 14th, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.