Amid the deepening opioid epidemic, more than 1,000 people gathered Saturday evening in Camden for a regional candlelight vigil in remembrance of those who lost their lives to overdoses.

"It is more than overwhelming and unacceptable," said Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli, opening the ceremony at 6 p.m. in Camden's waterfront stadium. He cited an Inquirer and Daily News analysis this week that found a 50 percent increase in overdose deaths so far this year in Philadelphia and the seven surrounding counties.

During the somber event — hosted by the freeholder board and 17 counties from three states — the names and photos of 892 overdose victims were shown on video screens on either side of the stage, draped in black.

Some families wore T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their lost loved ones. Colorful postcards with notes to the dead were posted on a giant blackboard in the stadium hallway. The steps were chalked with the words, "Remember. Act. Prevent." As dusk descended, many people turned on the battery-operated candles placed at each seat.

Sounding a theme of the evening, Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh said, "Addiction has no boundaries. It knows no borders. …We can do a lot better in government."

Each of the three featured speakers delved into another theme of the evening: the stigma of the disease of addiction.

Inquirer columnist Mike Newall, whose older brother, John, died of a heroin overdose at age 34 in 1999, said, "We dispel stigma by telling stories, and I realized I had to tell mine."

Then he read from a column in which he disclosed his family's painful loss: "I'm not sure if anyone could have saved my brother. Narcan was not in wide use. It was the earliest days of an epidemic. We used different language then to talk about those battling addictions. After the funeral, my family, myself included, had a falling-out with the priest who during his eulogy spoke again and again of my brother's 'demons.' John had been so much more than his disease."

Another featured speaker, Tara Conner, told of her battle with addiction — beginning when she was just 14 — and how winning the title of Miss USA in 2006 led to a downward spiral that ended only when she was forced into rehab.

Tara Conner, Miss USA 2006, talks about her drug addiction, recovery, and advocacy work.
Joseph Kaczmarek
Tara Conner, Miss USA 2006, talks about her drug addiction, recovery, and advocacy work.

"I have such a fear of looking bad that I can't tell you I'm struggling, right?" she said. "I was dying on the inside, and I didn't know why."

Now, with 11 years of sobriety, she works to try to erase the stigma.

"We are survivors of a common peril," she said. "I wasn't a bad person who needed to be good. I was a sick person who needed to get well."

Justin Phillips of Indianapolis echoed that point. Four years ago, she founded a nonprofit, Overdose Lifeline Inc., after her son, Aaron, died of an overdose at age 20.

"Addiction is a chronic brain disease," Phillips said. "I had 24 years of sobriety [from alcohol], but I knew nothing of opioids or Narcan. I did not fail as a parent, but the shame and stigma are real."

If her son had been diagnosed with cancer or diabetes, Phillips said, she would have told her friends, who would have given her support and "brought casseroles."

"We do not bring casseroles to people suffering from addiction," she said. "You are brave to be here because people judge us. Addiction deserves the same care and attention we give to any other chronic illness."