March 29, 2018, was the worst day of Renee Dryden Bertinot’s life.
It was the day she lost her 31-year-old daughter, Sarah Beth Pellegrin, to a heroin overdose. Overcome with grief, Bertinot wanted to prevent her daughter’s tragedy from happening to another parent.
Joining with her friend, Michelle Eschete, the two created an organization aimed at eradicating the stigma associated with drug addiction. Just three months after Pellegrin’s death, S.A.R.A.H., or Seeking Action Raising Awareness and Hope, was formed.
“It came out of tragedy,” Bertinot said Saturday during a vigil at the Terrebonne Parish Courthouse honoring those who lost their battles with drug addiction and to bring awareness to those struggling with it.
“We wanted to do something to give a voice to those who are not recovering out of this disease,” the Houma ICU nurse said. “We also wanted to bring awareness to our community about the opioid epidemic. People are dying every day, and we have to speak about it. We have to bring it to the light.”
Eschete said one of S.A.R.A.H.’s goals is to eradicate the stigma associated with addiction.
“It is our dream, our mission and desire to continue to bring awareness and hope while seeking action to remove the stigma of addiction for the addicts and their families,” Eschete said. “To open the lines of communication without placing shame or blame. The bitter reality of addiction is that it doesn’t just disappear. It still exists after recovery, after rehabilitation and even after death. It still lingers.”
Recovery is possible, but it isn’t easy, Bertinot said. Recovery is a road fraught with obstacles and setbacks, she said.
“That’s why we want to end the silence of addiction,” she said. “For so long addiction has been taboo and nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s killing people left and right. People have an image of the guy laying in the gutter. Sometimes that is the case, but nowadays it’s anybody. Addiction knows no bounds.”
Bertinot said she hopes to have as many resources available in the area for those struggling with addiction.
“With all the finances being made available with the Johnson & Johnson lawsuit, that’s a turn in our favor,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is have a transitional housing facility for women in our community and additionally men too. We need as many places as we can get. Once they get out of rehab, sometimes people need places to go. Sometimes they need to be retrained, receive more education or life skills to give them a solid foundation to get back into society to become productive citizens.”
Bertinot referred to the Aug. 26 ruling in which a judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay Oklahoma $572 million for the misleading marketing of opioid medications.
By creating S.A.R.A.H., Bertinot said she was able to turn a tragedy into a learning experience. Pellegrin’s photo will be forever remembered as a symbol, Bertinot said.
“When people see Sarah they will associate her with recovery, hope and bringing awareness and making change,” she said. “And for that I’m grateful. I want her legacy to be a positive one.”
--Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 446-7639 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanVCopp.