The Pink Elephant: 5K Takes Aim at the Riverwards’ Drug Epidemic
Reenie Dugan wants to talk about the elephant in the room, the pink elephant more specifically. It has to be addressed. Ignoring it will not make it go away. What is this pink elephant? It’s the drug epidemic that is taking too many lives, weakening our communities, and leaving holes in an entire generation.
It’s the family member we mourn much too soon or the friend we speak about in hushed tones. It’s the syringe we step over on our way to the grocery store or the young couple on the El, once full of hopes and dreams, now desperate for their next fix.
“If it continues, God only knows what it’s going to look like for the next generation,” Dugan said in a recent interview with Spirit News.
The numbers are staggering. According to a June report from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, nearly 700 deaths were reported from drug overdoses in the city in 2015. That is more than double the number of deaths from homicide over the same period. The report notes that there has been a sharp increase in heroin-related deaths since 2011 with opioids like fentanyl also claiming hundreds of lives.
But more pressing than the numbers are the human lives attached to each of them, right here in our community. According to the same Department of Public Health report, there were 45 overdose deaths in the Riverwards during 2015, tying it for the highest rate in the city. Those were 45 human lives: neighbors, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends.
Those lives are the reason Dugan decided she had to do something. Inspired by the successful St. LaRUNtius 5K, she had the idea to organize a grassroots run through the very streets where people are being affected. It didn’t make sense to Dugan that most awareness events are held outside of the city when so many people are suffering right in her own neighborhood.
“There’s such a problem with the heroin epidemic and the opiate epidemic happening in our neighborhood and we’re going to different areas of the state or even Jersey,” she said. “People are coming here and they’re dying. And families are suffering in silence because of the stigma that is attached. So it just kind of came to me. We need to do this for addiction: actually run the streets of our neighborhood, try to pull the community together, try to figure something out to change this around.”
After reaching out to an organizer of the St. LaRUNtius 5K for advice, she started the process of planning her own run, something she admittedly had little experience doing in the past. Though she has participated in previous 5Ks and helped to organize teams, this is the biggest event she has tackled to date. She turned to family and neighbors for help, including lifelong friend Kathy Taylor. Taylor told me that she jumped at the opportunity to participate.
“We share the same passion for people in recovery in general. And [Reenie Duagn] has this idea to do this race and she phoned me and I said, ‘Yes! Great idea! Do it!’” Taylor said.
The two friends formed a planning committee along with Dugan’s brother Sean, his wife Sylvia, and friend Brian White. Together they brainstormed a name for their project. According to their Facebook page, they settled on “Pink Elephant” because it’s “something that would draw attention to this project, something that had real meaning behind what we were trying to accomplish. The Pink Elephant in the room, the obvious that is occurring, but no one seems to want to talk about.”
Dugan reiterated that theme of bringing this issue out into the open and ridding it of its stigma several times over the course of our conversation.
“This doesn’t need to be a secret. There’s help out there. There’s support out there, not only for the addicts but for their families as well,” she said.
Taylor also made a point to reassure people that this is nothing to hide. “It’s OK to talk about. We didn’t pick this addiction… It doesn’t have to be embarrassing,” she said.
Their hope is that on race day all of those affected by the epidemic — addicts, recovering addicts, family and friends of someone who has passed — will see that support firsthand right in their own community.
“Hopefully this will be some kind of way for people to heal, who are in pain. Whether they lost someone, whether they have someone struggling, whether they’re struggling themselves — the whole thing is just to help others,” Dugan said.
“Everybody gets affected. What we’re saying is that if we can shed some light on that darkness in somebody’s life, that’s our goal here – to bring people out and let them know it’s OK and they don’t have to suffer and they don’t have to live in guilt and shame,” Taylor agreed.
Taylor also talked about the importance of keeping those that we lost front and center in our minds and giving them proper representation on race day.
“There will be a memory table at Cione Field. There will be a picture of a person who has died as a result of their addiction and a brief paragraph about the person. There will also be a photo at each mile marker…That’s to give people [a reminder]: as you’re running, this is who we’re running for. This is who we lost,” Taylor said.
Dugan said she’s been surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction from individuals and businesses in the area. The event’s Facebook page has been a constant stream of support. Donations, big and small, continue to pour in on a weekly basis.
“I didn’t expect it to be this big. Initially I was like, maybe around 50 people will get a route together and run, maybe 100 tops. Now it’s at 250,” she said, noting that we are still far from race day. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll have 300 people running and walking in this. It’s amazing, the outreach from the community,” Dugan said.
The Pink Elephant 5K is scheduled for Saturday, October 1 at 10:00 AM. Race day registration will be available, but participants are encouraged to register ahead of time online at www.racemenu.com/pink. For more information on the ongoing drug epidemic, please visit www.phila.gov/health/Commissioner/chart.html. •