In April 2016, Maureen “Reenie” Dugan, Kathy Taylor, and Sylvia Dugan, three women whose lives have been indelibly impacted by the struggle of addiction, came together to create awareness, support, and change in their communities in and around lower north-east Philadelphia. Kensington, Fishtown, and Port Richmond are three connected neighborhoods riddled with addiction, and a few of the many towns that have experienced extraordinary suffering and loss from the heroin problem that has now grown to epidemic proportions around the country. According to Reenie Dugan, families have been losing sons, daughters and spouses, at alarming rates. But, beyond the tragic loss of life, families are needed to come together to help raise children and grandchildren. So many people are dealing with the pain and loss that goes hand-in-hand with opiate addiction, but nobody wants to talk about their grief, or that their suffering has been at the hands of heroin. It is indeed the pink elephant in the room, as well as so many living rooms in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia and across the country. Too many families have been devastated by the losses incurred from heroin addiction, but rarely do they come together; to share, to help, and to support.
And so, borne out of a strong desire to bring the suffering communities together and make a difference, The Pink Elephant was born.
With a plan for a 5k race, the three women approached their local councilmen, community zoning representatives, and surrounding businesses. They secured a 5k route, political support, and sponsorship for their event. The women believed that organizing runners to race through the streets of the very neighborhoods affected by addiction would be the most powerful way to bring attention to the problem. Cione Playground would be the starting and ending points of the race. Corporate sponsors came forward to take booths and provide refreshments as well as informational booths on treatment. A Facebook Page went up and people began to sign up for the race. The interest climbed dramatically and by race day over 400 runners had signed up. The Pink Elephant offered grieving families an opportunity to make a photo poster of their dearly departed, together with their biography. Within days of the race, Reenie Dugan was flooded with last minute calls from family members who wanted a chance to memorialize their loved one at this event.
Saturday October 1st, 2016 arrived, and the air was chilly at about 57 degrees. It was cloudy, but thankfully it was not raining. Seasoned runners might argue that the conditions were perfect for a race day. As 9 am approached, Cione Playground began to fill with people of all ages. Before the race began, some emotional words were spoken by a selected few, including Pink Elephant founder, Reenie Dugan, and a mother of a daughter who had died only a few months earlier from an overdose. The atmosphere was somber; the audience was silent. The national anthem was sung, and then the race was underway.
As a passionate advocate for recovery, as well as a psychologist specializing in addiction treatment, not to mention, an aspiring runner, I made my way from South Florida to Philadelphia to support the two Dugan’s and Kathy Taylor at their inaugural event. I had the requisite pink running shirt on and did the obligatory pre-race stretching before the race began, and when the race buzzer sounded, off I went. I couldn’t help but smile at the choice of music being played as I was cheered on by the crowd at the starting line; the theme from Rocky. It could not have been more perfect. As someone who grew up in the 80s, and as a Londoner, Rocky movies were part of my childhood, and the stuff of Hollywood storylines. To run through the streets of Fishtown and Kensington, was like running through the movie set of Rocky. It was surreal.
But the movie-fantasy of the underdog Rocky beating the evil opponent quickly faded for me. Compared to the reality of trying to beat the monster of addiction, happy Hollywood movie-endings made the moment even more overwhelming. It was hard to hold back tears of emotion as I ran. The streets of Kensington were populated with homeless men and women, dressed in shabby clothing and hunched over on the stoops outside the storefronts. The carefully chosen music on my MP3 player haunted me as I ran under the El overpass. I wanted to experience the power and the importance of this run. George Michael’s “Like Jesus to a Child” echoed through my ears, haunting me. How could we make a difference? How could a small grassroots organization get the attention of the people? Most of mainstream America does not know about this problem. It can’t just be the people directly impacted. More has to be done.
Just as I had been told by Reenie and my clients, the grassy swales on the sides of the road were littered with orange needle caps, and “rigs,” as they are called. As I ran through the streets, the police officers of the 26th district held the traffic while the runners crossed busy intersections. Volunteers from nearby halfway houses helped guide the runners on the mapped-out route. Turning off Kensington Ave, I found myself running past a quaint row of houses in Fishtown, already decorated in anticipation of Halloween. Residents were poking their heads out of front doors, cheering us, as we sprinted by. At that moment, it occurred to me- some families might be unaware of who we were, or why we were running, so we were bringing attention to our cause. Who and what was the Pink Elephant? If people didn’t know, they might care enough to inquire, if only for the sake of curiosity. But that was how we could spread our word. We are The Pink Elephant. We represent hope in the face of pain and suffering of families who are battling, or have lost the battle with opiate addiction.
We are a place to call for support, information, and to remove the stigma of the “junkie.” We will educate you that opiate addiction rarely starts with a needle and a bag of dope. Addiction can start in all sorts of unintended ways; with pain pills prescribed after wisdom teeth are removed, or knee surgery after a hopeful high school athlete tears his meniscus, or a woman experiencing a complicated childbirth that results in cesarean section. It is not just the kid who started smoking weed in middle school, wound up taking pills by high school, and shooting dope before dropping out of academia in 11th grade- although it happens that way too. Addiction cuts across all ages, race, and economic barriers. Addiction has a genetic component, it does not discriminate and it takes no prisoners.
And so, by the end of the race-day event, The Pink Elephant had achieved all that had been hoped for and so much more. Over 500 people attended the event and a significant amount of money was raised. As a result of the monies raised, Dugan and Taylor were able to provide money to many families who have taken on the role of caregiver to children as a result of losing a parent to addiction. This afforded them a Christmas filled with joy in the face of grief and adversity.
Since its launch in April 2016, and the inaugural race in October, the Pink Elephant has far exceeded the expectations Dugan and Taylor imagined. In fact, the cause was so powerful, and so impactful, that the Pink Elephant gave birth to The Pink Elephant Too, a not-for-profit Florida organization that brings advocacy, awareness, support and education to families in South Florida who have also been devastated by opiate addiction. With Reenie Dugan and Kathy Taylor on the advisory board, it seemed the logical next step was to create an opportunity to bring families together, to support one another, and to educate the community-at-large of the opiate crisis that has grown to epidemic proportions.
We are losing hundreds of lives every day to opiate addiction. No family is immune and all are susceptible to this destructive disease. The more we know, the better equipped we will be to address the problems inherent in addiction. And maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference in saving some individuals and families before their addiction reaches a point of no return.
Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Certified Addictions Professional in the State of Florida. She is also a Florida Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator, and Qualified Parent Coordinator. Currently the Clinical Director of Holistix by The Sea, she is also President of Pink Elephant Too, a Florida Non-Profit Organization to raise awareness for opiate addiction, and has a private practice in Boca Raton, Florida.