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Opioid crisis drives Lynnfield couple

Richard and Carmela Dalton lost their son, Michael, to an opioid overdose last year and have turned their grief to launch Think Of Michael, a nonprofit whose mission is to help others battling substance use. (Olivia Falcigno)

LYNNFIELD — To Richard and Carmela Dalton, the opioid epidemic is not just a collection of troubling headlines and grim statistics. It’s personal.

Michael Dalton, the couple’s 39-year-old son, died from an accidental overdose last year while in treatment. 

In the nearly two years since his death, the Daltons have become members of a growing club no one wants to join: families left behind after a loved one could not break free from addiction.

“Michael had an infectious smile,” said Carmela Dalton. “He was a great athlete, had a very caring and loving personality, and was always first to help anyone, any time.”

Taking a cue from his generous spirit, the family founded Think Of Michael. The nonprofit, founded in January, picks up the $800 tab for a month at a sober house for income-eligible substance abuse patients who have completed treatment. These homes serve as the place between rehabilitation and the real world. Typically, rules include no drugs or alcohol, a curfew, and occupants must have a job. At times, clients are subjected to random drug and breathalyzer tests. These halfway houses are not covered by insurance.

“This is exactly what Michael would like to see as he looks down at us,” she said. “He would be very proud of the work we are doing.” 

On Sunday, the foundation will co-sponsor A Night of Hope. It is intended to support anyone impacted by opioid abuse. The gathering will include participants from Healthy Lynnfield, whose mission is to prevent substance abuse and provide recovery resources. It comes on the 30th anniversary of National Recovery Month Substance Abuse, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to increase understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate those who recover. This year’s theme is Join the Voices for Recovery: Together We Are Stronger.

The Daltons said the event will begin at the Lynnfield Middle School at 6 p.m and participants will march to the Town Common for a brief ceremony.  Everyone will be given a T-shirt and a purple vigil candle.  Purple is the color associated with recovery.  The buildings in the Center, including Town Hall, the library, the Congregational Church, Centre Farm, the Kimball home and the Meeting House will feature purple ribbons and purple vigil candles.

While the Dalton family would have preferred to remain private with their sorrow, they have turned their unimaginable grief to help others avoid what they’re going through. 

“We are private people, but when Michael passed the family came together and wanted to do something that would make a difference,” said Richard Dalton, chief financial officer at the Metro North Regional Employment Board and serves on the Board of Selectmen. “We don’t want another family to have this pain.”

In January, the family kicked off its first Think Of Michael fundraiser at a Trivia Night at the Breakaway in Danvers. Their goal was to raise $15,000 or $20,000.

“We would have been more than happy with that amount,” he said. “But 400 people turned out. The outpouring of support was beyond our imagination.”

The event raised more than $90,000. Since then, the foundation has distributed one payment per week to sober house applicants recommended by clinicians. But Dalton, who is the former president and CEO of Wonderland Greyhound Park and executive vice president of the Back Bay Restaurant Group, said they plan to double the number because they’ve received more than 100 requests since January.

Carmela Dalton said her son was a star athlete at St. Sebastian’s School, an independent, all-boys Catholic high school on a 26-acre campus in Needham where he was a standout varsity hockey and football player. He later graduated from Colby College, a private liberal arts college in Maine, where he continued to play sports.

“He was a great running back, an All New England,” she said. 

Before his son’s death, Richard Dalton said he only knew a few Lynnfield residents who have a family member struggling with addiction. 

“But since Michael’s passing, the number of people who feel comfortable sharing their challenges with us has grown,” he said. “It’s amazing the extent of it within Lynnfield. As we have gotten involved in the addiction community, we’ve learned one person, who is either a current or former Lynnfield resident, is dying a month as a result of opioid overdose. For a small community like ours, that’s huge.”

Every day, more than 130 people in the U.S. die after overdosing on opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The misuse of and addiction to opioids, including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, is a serious national crisis that impacts public health as well as social and economic welfare, the agency said.

In Massachusetts, the number of opioid deaths has increased by 48 percent since 2014, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. There was a nearly 6 percent decrease from 2016 to 2017 as new state rules were implemented that made it more difficult for doctors to prescribe opiods. 

“If we can save one person, all our efforts would be worth it,” said Carmela Dalton.

WHAT IS A SOBER HOUSE?

Sober houses are primarily private homes, separate from treatment centers without government participation and there’s no taxpayer funding. They are a buffer for recently discharged clients between the protection of treatment and the real world.

Residents pay rent to stay in the home while the owner maintains sole responsibility for its upkeep. These sober houses typically employ the 12-step program of recovery as their philosophy, emphasizing meeting attendance and participation in recovery.

They provide a safe place for people recovering from addiction and alcoholism. There are rules such as no drugs or alcohol usage, curfew, and occupants must have a job. At times, clients are subjected to random drug testing as well as being breathalyzed. These rules help keep its residents accountable while still allowing freedom to live in the real world. It’s “halfway” between treatment and the outside world.

Source: Ocean Breeze Recovery.

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