WESTERLY — A panel of experts will discuss opioid use and prevention as well as vaping and marijuana use at a program Wednesday at Christ Church in Westerly. The event, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the parish hall at 7 Elm St., is free and open to the public.

The program was developed by Dan Fitzgerald and the Chariho Youth Task Force, which he coordinates. Shirley Andrews, chairwoman of the church's pastoral care commission, said the commission decided earlier this year to host an event on opioid abuse in the fall. She and the Rev. Deacon Anne Burke of Christ Church attended a presentation by Fitzgerald last month at a clergy meeting in Wakefield, and they later invited him to their church.

"The focus is opioid abuse prevention ... it's of great value particularly at this time with the opioid epidemic," Andrews said.

Burke, who is a member of the pastoral care commission, said the forum is in line with the commission's community outreach goal. "We're very sensitive to the crisis that we're in with this category of drugs," she said.

Audience members will be shown how to use Narcan, a medication used to revive overdose victims. Speakers will include Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey; Mike Fry, a recovering addict and recovery coach with Anchor Recovery Community Center; Kate Tokarski of Strong Arms Support Group, a group for parents of children who are struggling with addiction or have died from it; and Barbara Minteer, of Richmond, whose son Alex died of a drug overdose at 29.

The Rev. Sunil Chandy, rector of Christ Church, said the abuse of opioids has touched many in the area.

"I and Christ Church support this programming because the opioid crisis is an important issue that many of our community members are struggling with. In the past five years I have had to do three funerals of young adults who have overdosed on opioids. This program is an effort by our church to find ways to deal with a real and present danger to the young people and all people of our community," Chandy said.

The program is supported by the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island "as our churches all over Rhode Island deal with this challenging issue," said Chandy, a former member of the now defunct Westerly Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force.

Chandy's wife, Simi Chandy, a pharmacist, will also speak, and there will be time for questions from audience members.

Local faith communities will be provided with Narcan and the panel will offer to go to other houses of worship to make presentations.

The number of drug overdose calls that the Westerly Ambulance Corps has responded to in recent years bears out Chandy's concerns. In 2018 the ambulance corps, which serves Westerly and Pawcatuck, responded to 72 overdoses, with 36 attributed to opioids. In the same year the corps administered Narcan to 34 patients, of those seven patients received multiple doses.

As of Friday morning the ambulance corps had responded to 55 overdose calls this year, including 27 for opioids. Narcan was administered to 30 patients, and of those 12 patients received multiple doses.

According to the Prevent Overdose Rhode Island website, throughout Rhode Island there were 240 fatal overdoses in 2014, 290 in 2015, 336 in 2016, 324 in 2017, and 314 in 2018. This year, statewide, there were 156 overdose deaths in the first six months of the year, equaling the number recorded for the same period in 2018. Prevent Overdose Rhode Island is an interdepartmental initiative of Gov. Gina Raimondo's administration.

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