Thomas Ventura was a typical teenage boy—he loved being outside, playing lacrosse and camping with his family at Hither Hills State Park in Montauk.
But soon his life would change.
When he was in high school, the Kings Park resident lost three of his grandparents in the span of two years, causing him to become depressed, explained his mother, Linda Ventura. She took him to counseling, but he refused to open up to professionals.
Instead, Mr. Ventura turned to smoking marijuana with his friends.
At first, Mr. Ventura smoked only on the weekend, which led to smoking after school, then every day, and eventually several times per day. The high still wasn’t alleviating his pain, however, leading him to down a dark path to painkillers and heroin—the opioid that would eventually take his life on March 14, 2012. He was 21.
Ms. Ventura shared her son’s story with nearly 250 people in the Hampton Bays High School auditorium on the night of Wednesday, November 15, with the goal of finding ways to keep others from paying the ultimate price for their addictions in the future. “There need to be solutions,” she said.
Ms. Ventura said she hopes to see a day when treatment for addiction is available on demand, citing the long waits for patients to get admitted into rehabilitation facilities.
“We know better,” Ms. Ventura said. “We have to do better at this point in time.”
Ms. Ventura spoke on Wednesday night as a guest speaker at the Southampton Town Opioid Task Force’s first forum, called “It Hits Home,” to discuss ways to reduce the number of opioid deaths in Southampton Town.
The forum was attended by the 27-member Task Force—which is made up of educators, health officials and law enforcement officials—and members of the community. It was co-chaired by Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and former News 12 Anchor Drew Scott, who lives in Westhampton.
Mr. Scott was asked to help run the forum after his granddaughter Hallie Ulrich, 22, a graduate of Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, died on September 7 of a heroin overdose.
Ms. Ulrich was found on the grassy shoulder of Alewife Brook Road in East Hampton that morning, not far from where she had been camping at Cedar Point County Park with her boyfriend, Michael Goericke, 28, and another friend.
Mr. Goericke, who grew up in Water Mill and attended school in Southampton, died of a drug-related cause the next day at his mother’s house in Flanders.
As Mr. Scott shared Ms. Ulrich’s story last week, Sally Gilles of Sag Harbor—his daughter, and Ms. Ulrich’s mother—sat on the panel with the rest of the task force, crying.
He said that part of the journey to finding a solution to opioid addiction is being able to talk about it.
“There is a stigma is attached to heroin overdoses and deaths,” said Mr. Scott, noting that the judgment needs to stop in order to properly fix the problem.
Police Chief Steve Skrynecki said there were 17 fatal drug overdoses in the town in 2017 alone, and his department frequently is called to administer the drug naloxone hydrochloride—commonly known as Narcan, which blocks opioid receptors in the brain, helping an individual who has overdosed to breathe normally again.
The issue isn’t limited to any one area of town, he noted. “Almost every hamlet here in Southampton Town is represented,” Chief Skrynecki said.
The second half of the night was held in a conversational style, where concerned members of the community were able to ask questions of the experts and offer suggestions about how to prevent opioid abuse and overdoses in the future.
Many people in attendance suggested the solution was education for parents and children—possibly beginning as early as kindergarten.
Mr. Schneiderman said the forum was an educational night and hopes to hold another by the spring.