Chalk outlines covered the sidewalk outside Government Plaza in Downtown Binghamton as Truth Pharm hosted “Trail of Truth.”
The event, an effort to memorialize those who have died due to substance use, is held every fall by the advocacy group, which was founded by Alexis Pleus after she lost her son to a heroin overdose in August 2014. While trying to combat the stigma associated with her son’s death, Pleus started creating videos to raise awareness about substance use and treatment. The attention attracted by the videos would eventually lead her to create Truth Pharm.
“I started creating little videos used to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of addiction and substance use,” Pleus wrote in an email. “The videos were getting thousands of views, but more importantly, families were so grateful for the work and I realized I had to do more.”
The organization started with just a Facebook page, but has since turned into a national nonprofit with four branch locations, including one in Binghamton. According to the New York State County Opioid Quarterly Report, Broome County experienced a total of 57 deaths in 2016 because of opioid overdoses. In the same year, 1,990 people died from opioid overdoses across New York state, excluding deaths in New York City.
“Our mission is to raise awareness, reduce the stigma, educate the public and advocate for policy change to reduce the harms caused by substance use,” Pleus wrote. “We have educational programs for corporations, medical providers, the public and families impacted.”
According to Pleus, Trail of Truth aims to honor those who have passed away, raise awareness in the community and prevent fatalities as a result of substance use. The event featured individual tombstones painted to memorialize loved ones of people from the community. At Government Plaza, family members participated in performance art, leaning the tombstones against a wall and lying down in front of them while chalk artists outlined their bodies. Within the tracing of their bodies, family members wrote notes to the deceased.
The performance was accompanied by a drum circle. Following the performance, elected officials were invited to pass out roses to family members. According to Pleus, the event is intended to be symbolic.
“The tracings [are] filled with descriptions of our loved ones to show these are not empty, meaningless lives we are losing,” Pleus wrote. “We do this all in front of governmental buildings to show who we feel is most responsible for the issue — and responsible to stop the death toll from rising. The roses [show] responsibility and remorse.”
The event also featured speeches by other nonprofit leaders, including Kassandra Frederique, New York state director at Drug Policy Alliance, a group based in New York City.
Frederique discussed the intersection of race and drug policy. She said she was initially frustrated when concerns spiked over opioid addiction in upstate New York, because the issue had been affecting communities of color in New York City for years.
“Nobody cared when my uncle died, nobody cared when my friends died,” Frederique said. “There were no rallies, there were no conversations, there were no elected officials. I care now because I realize that my liberty, that my humanity, that my love is tied to yours. That I’m not going to live, that I’m not going to be more humane, that my community is not going to get better if yours doesn’t.”
According to Pleus, local and state politicians, including Binghamton Mayor Rich David, County Executive Jason Garnar and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo were invited to attend the event, but were unable to. Garnar and Lupardo sent representatives in their place. Broome County Legislator Mary Kaminsky, Endicott Deputy Mayor Eileen Konecny and Whitney Point Mayor Ryan Reynolds were present.