MASHPEE — Gail Mahoney, 77, measures the toll of the heroin crisis here and across the country by counting the number of grandchildren she and her friends have lost to the deadly drug.
One friend lost two grandchildren. Another friend buried one grandchild and has a grandson who is “fighting for his life.” Mahoney said her son’s stepdaughter died of a heroin overdose four years ago.
“I’m just a little nobody, and I know seven people that have kids that have lost their lives,” Mahoney said Friday. “It’s everywhere. It’s not just on Cape Cod. It’s throughout our whole country. My question is: Why do we have so much heroin in this country?”
Mahoney, a Mashpee resident, visited the Mashpee rotary Friday night to speak with volunteers who placed 330 purple flags to represent people who died from overdoses of heroin and other opioids on Cape Cod and the Islands between 2000 and 2014.
Flags were also placed in the Marstons Mills section of Barnstable and in Orleans. In total, 1,000 flags were placed across Cape Cod to symbolize the number of people who died in Massachusetts last year using the powerful drugs.
The display was timed to coincide with Father’s Day, when many people visit Cape Cod, and will stay up until Wednesday, organizers said.
“It means everything,” said Daniel Gilmartin, whose son, Cory, 32, died of a heroin overdose in January 2014. “My son, Cory, he was my best friend. We worked together. He’s a plumber. I’m a plumber. So I taught him everything I know. So it does mean a lot.”
His wife, Joan Peters-Gilmartin, led a group of volunteers who placed flags in Orleans. She said she got the idea from a display of combat boots representing soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Heroin is ubiquitous here on the Cape and it’s cheap,” she said. “I don’t want to read another obituary.”
The display was organized by Mashpee Cares and Communities United for a Drug Free
Environment, which was established by the parents of Isaiah Fagan, 35,who died from an overdose of heroin and prescription drugs last September.
His father, Tom Fagan, said he found his son dead at the family home in Marstons Mills. He said the way society treats addicts is “immoral.”
“They kick them around,” said Fagan, 65. “Too many have died. Too many people are addicted. There are absolutely no treatment options.”
Cape Cod Healthcare’s Office of Community Health donated $809 to pay for the flags, said Cheryl Bartlett, the executive director and former state Department of Public Health
The color of the flags is a nod to the Project Purple Initiative established by former Boston Celtics player Chris Herren. Herren, a former heroin user who grew up in Fall River, travels the country telling his story of addiction and recovery.
His Project Purple Initiative encourages high school students to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Mashpee High School has a chapter, said Christopher Santos, a Mashpee School Committee member and vice chairman of Mashpee Cares.
Santos was among the volunteers planting flags. He launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for substance abuse prevention efforts.
“Right now it seems like the biggest issue in our community,” he said. “We’re trying to reach out to the kids and the youth before it happens.”
Alex Eaton, 19, who is apprenticing with Gilmartin as a plumber, said he was inspired to help
after a childhood friend, William Damon, 18, died of a heroin overdose in November. Eaton’s family planted flags with him.
Before Damon’s wake, Eaton said, he drove to Mashpee Town Hall and asked what he could do to help.
“I hope people see [the flags] and think, ‘Wow. This is a big problem. Because it is and people don’t really realize it,” he said.
Mashpee Detective Sergeant Sean Sullivan said Damon died in his arms after his friends drove him to the police station seeking medical attention. Sullivan helped place flags.
“I’ve been in the military for over 25 years. I’ve done multiple deployments. I have yet to have anybody actually die in front of me,” he said. “But in the last three years as a police officer, I’ve had multiple people die in my arms from overdoses.”