September 16, 2021

Photographer looks to put faces on overdoses

Greater Cortland area people and agencies are working with a Washington, D.C.-based photographer to capture and share stories related to overdose.

Since the start of the year, more than 40 overdoses have been reported by Cortland County law enforcement, excluding the Sheriff’s Office and state police, said Sara Watrous, program director for Cortland Area Communities That Care. Four of those have resulted in death, according to the county Coroner’s Office.

The portrait project aims to capture images and stories of those who have lost someone to overdose, Watrous said. The photos will be displayed at the Courthouse Park in Cortland for Overdose Awareness Day at the end of August.

“This project is about bringing awareness to the Cortland community on how exactly people are being affected by overdose deaths,” said Dean O’Gorman, co-leader of 607 Healing Hearts, an overdose grief support group for parents or guardians who have lost a child. “Any time there’s an overdose, the focus is on the person that passed but they forget about the parents, brothers, sisters, families and friends.”


How to sign up
Healing Cortland and 607 Healing Hearts are still looking for families who have lost someone to overdose and are willing to have their photo taken and share their stories. Cortland County is the focus but is open to others in Central New York.

  • To learn more, go to www.facebook.com/groups/769536263692965
  • To sign up, visit forms.gle/NygHWKcM37tyAx8z7
  • For questions about 607 Healing Hearts or the project, call Dean O’Gorman at 607-283-6378

“I have not photographed people who have lost their lives to overdose, but all of these people are part of the community I grew up in,” said Zack Bolton, a Cortland native and freelance photographer
and editorial manager at National Geographic. “In putting photos to the loved ones that have lost people that they care about and to put images to those families that are still trying to piece together what happened, it shows and humanizes this issue that our community is facing.”

As of Tuesday, the project had 14 committed families, many of whom are a part of 607 Healing Hearts, O’Gorman said. The organization hopes to line Church Street in Cortland with the portraits.

“Through the loss of our loved ones, we want to open their eyes that they are not immune,” O’Gorman said. “Before 2017, I thought the same way – I thought it could never happen to me, it couldn’t be us.”

Karlene Shafer of Marathon and Kelhi Giarrusso of Mohawk both lost their daughters to opioid overdoses. Through this project, they want to reduce the stigma and show people their children are more than their addictions. “I want to be involved in this project because it’s in your face,” Shafer said. “I decided after my daughter passed away that if I could do anything to save somebody else or save a parent from having to feel like I do and stop the stigma, I would. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Shafer’s daughter, Nicole Sherman, was 38 when she died, Shafer said. She had just returned home from rehab and was living with Shafer when she overdosed in their bathroom. Sherman was found by her then 18-year-old son, Christian Moshier, when he returned home from work.

Giarrusso’s daughter, Erin Lopez, was 32 when she died, her mother said. Lopez was an advocate for recovery in the Rochester area and sober for months, but relapsed after a meeting and overdosed in a public bathroom around 8 p.m.

She was found five hours later, 100 feet from a pharmacy with naloxone, a nasal spray that reverses an opioid overdose.

“I want people to know, anyone that suffers with addiction, that is a small part of who they are,” Giarrusso said.

“I want our children’s faces seen and I want people to know our story. Our children’s voices cannot be heard anymore, and I carry my daughter’s light, I am her voice and I will be her voice.”