December 2, 2021

Overdose Awareness Day vigil in Cortland shines light on addiction

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Mike and Kristy Buchalla, of Virgil, examine the portraits by National Geographic photographer Zack Bolton of the families of people who died of overdose at a vigil Tuesday evening at Courthouse Park in Cortland. The Buchallas have friends who lost their children to drugs, and their own son deals with addiction.

Valerie Partridge never imagined she would stand in front of a crowd of a hundred people and admit her struggles with addiction.

Grieving for the friends and family she’s lost to drug overdose, she shared her story Tuesday and hopes to help others find their own path to recovery.

“It’s nerve-wracking, but if my story can help somebody else realize that addiction is management,” Partridge said, “I want them to know they can make it through it.”

The Healing Hearts Collaborative and other Central New York addiction support services organizations organized a candlelight vigil Tuesday evening at Courthouse Park in Cortland to remember those who have died from an overdose as part of International Overdose Awareness Day.

Mike and Kristy Buchalla, of Virgil, lingered by the portraits that National Geographic photographer Zack Bolton took, illustrating the families of people who died of overdose. They’ve seen the grief of those families — one friend lost a child earlier this year, another a couple of years ago.

And they know the fear. Their son is addicted and in rehab. “We feel helpless most of the time,” Kristy Buchalla said. They struggle to find a way to be supportive, when addiction requires so much willpower to face.

“There was something I heard that I shared with my son,” Mike Buchalla said. “You are your own problem. And you are your own solution.”

Dean O’Gorman lost his 22- year-old son, Spencer Michael O’Gorman, when he died of an overdose in 2017. O’Gorman said he hadn’t recognized the signs that his son was addicted to opioids, but has since joined the Healing Hearts Collaborative — later becoming its program director and a naloxone trainer — to make sure other parents don’t experience what he did.

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Organizers of a candlelight vigil Tuesday at Courthouse Park in Cortland hoped to collect enough shoes to mark the 256 overdose deaths each day in America. They collected 300 pairs, which will be donated to CAPCO’s clothing program.

“This is geared so that people have a chance to not only be educated a little more, but also gives a chance for peace and a bit of a grieving process,” O’Gorman said Thursday. “It gives you a place where there’s no stigma, and you can actually remember somebody that you loved and lost.”

The event drew more than 130 people to Courthouse Park. Many held their LED candles in one hand, wiping away tears with the other.

“We need to fight the stigma, as a community,” O’Gorman said. “We need to show compassion and empathy for people that are struggling, and they should know there are people who want to help them.”

If you need help
If you or a loved one is dealing with addiction, grief or need community resources, you can get more information at or by calling Dean O’Gorman at 607-283-6378.

Several people spoke to the crowd, sharing their stories and the heartbreak of losing their loved ones.

“My mom’s 39 years ended with a blink of an eye — no word said, no explanations given. It all ended so fast, and left three broken hearts,” said Kayla Smith of Cortland. “Thirty-nine years, just to be gone in a second. We now hope that in death there was no pain. It was only 39 years — no chance for forgiveness — and now, all that we are left with is regret.”

Partridge was 38 the first time she put a needle in her arm. It followed years of alcoholism, abusive relationships, losing her job, her car, her home and custody of her children.

“Eventually, I finally had enough — I needed to work on getting better, I needed to get clean,” Partridge said. “I got successfully discharged for rehab chemical dependency counseling and probation. I was returned full custody of my children back to me, and now have a stable home and a great relationship with them.”

She turned her life around and now helps fellow addicts find a path to recovery.

“It’s still a daily battle with myself, my addiction and my trauma, but every morning I wake up and I make a promise to myself that I will make it through the day and I will stay sober,” Partridge said.


Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.

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