Still in the room

The Pink Elephant returns for third consecutive year to provide resources to families impacted by opioid crisis.

Walk this way: The Pink Elephant Movement 5K Run and Walk will be held on Saturday, Oct. 6. The race begins at 10 a.m. at Cione Playground. SOURCE: Reenie Dugan

By Melissa Komar

Although the opioid crisis is far from an “elephant in the room” anymore in Philadelphia, one group refuses to forget the families who are left behind in its often fatal aftermath.

In less than two weeks, hundreds of people will converge at Cione Playground for an annual event that provides no room for judgment, but endless support.

The Pink Elephant Movement will host its annual 5K on Oct. 6, when more than 100 people who died battling their drug addiction will be remembered by their loved ones.

“We want people to find a place to come and not feel alone and heal from their loss,” said Reenie Dugan, one of the event founders. “We don’t want people to feel ashamed of remembering their loved one no matter how they died.”

Dugan, a River Wards native, conceived the idea driving through Fishtown.

Trying to navigate through traffic, Dugan came across people participating in the annual St. LauRuntius 5K and thought, why not start a run to raise awareness about the drug problem in the neighborhoods that Dugan felt many were sweeping under the rug.

“Initially, our goal was to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic and lift the shame label. We just wanted to have it out in the open,” she said.

Debby Bennett, 59, is one of the individuals who knows first-hand how it feels to carry the stigma of having a loved one being an addict.

“We lost our daughter, Dana, in 2016, and I just felt like I, myself, had to get involved,” the Mayfair resident said. “It makes me feel like I am not alone. I shouldn’t be embarrassed that this had happened to us.

“I continue to participate, to make people feel they are loved, they aren’t alone.”

It’s families like the Bennetts who are at the heart of The Pink Elephant’s mission.

An important message: More than 100 people who died battling their drug addiction will be remembered by their loved ones during the Pink Elephant Movement 5K Run and Walk on Saturday, Oct. 6. SOURCE: Reenie Dugan

From constant media coverage both locally and nationally, to protests for and against removing drug addicts from underneath the Lehigh Viaduct tunnels, the opioid epidemic has become a household name in Philly and, with that recognition, the Pink Elephant, a nonprofit organization, has shifted its focus.

“Everyone is well aware of what’s going on. Raising awareness is at the bottom of the list of things we are trying to accomplish now. People are aware of what’s going on,” Dugan said. “We want to be part of the solution.”

The Pink Elephant distinguishes itself because it focuses on “the children and the families who are left with no resources,” she added.

“The ultimate goal is to create programs that will help instill positivity into these kids’ lives, so they don’t need a drug-based or alcohol-based solution to escape from their problems,” Dugan said.

The proceeds from the race go directly back to the families.

From going to a Phillies game as a group, to the Sunday with Santa event, when each child receives a gift and eats lunch with the big man in red, the Pink Elephant knows no limits.

“We got all the kids together and Santa came in,” Dugan said. “The smiles on their faces was priceless. Not all them get to experience joy. We’re trying to bring joy back into their lives or just bring it into their lives at all. Because sadly, that’s something some of them haven’t experienced.”

In addition to the baseball game and Sunday with Santa, the organization gives financial support to the families, from rent, to tuition, to sports fees.

“It’s like one big family, we are all in the same boat,” Bennett said. “The Pink Elephant is great for the families, especially those who are raising their grandchildren like we are. All year, I feel the love from them. They make sure the kids have what they need at Christmas.”

One goal board members Dugan, Kathy Taylor, Sylvia Dugan, Brian White and Tom Becker set early on was to send someone to “the happiest place on Earth.”

“We said we wanted to send someone to Disney and we made it happen,” Dugan said. “This kid has seen a lot more than any child should see. And, we wanted to bring this kid joy and we were able to surprise the family at Christmas. We want to bring joy and healing.”

The community has come out in full strength to support the organization in its mission, with 37 sponsors from unions, to food establishments, to elected officials, to other memorial events donating funds and supplies.

Although the focus of the event has shifted slightly, the event itself puts those who lost their lives to addiction at the forefront.

Loved ones submit a photo, and the images are blown up on large poster boards and line the fence surrounding the rec center at Lehigh and Aramingo avenues.

Last year, approximately 60 images hung from the fences. This year, 40 more people will be remembered.

The makeshift memorial is an opportunity to see the person, not the addiction.

“It’s to allow people to remember their loved ones proudly and remember them the way they lived before addiction,” Dugan said. “Parents still see these people as children with dreams aspiring to be something in life. That love doesn’t go away because someone loses themself in addiction. They have just as much a right to remember their loved one.”

And while the event devotes an entire day to addiction, The Pink Elephant is a year-round movement.

“It’s not like we’re just raising awareness and going home. We’re doing a lot more than just walking one day a year,” Dugan said. “It’s not tackling the epidemic or trying to get them treatment or get them out from under the tunnels. We’re starting from the bottom, where we’re trying to prevent kids from picking up [drugs] in the first place.” ••

If you go

The Pink Elephant Movement 5K Run and Walk will be held on Saturday, Oct. 6. On-site registration starts at 8 a.m., opening ceremony starts at 9:30 a.m., and the race begins at 10 a.m. at Cione Playground, Aramingo and Lehigh avenues.

Cost $35 in advance, $40 at the event. Kids Fun Run is free for kids 8 and under at 9 a.m. Registration fee includes a T-shirt. Pre-race pickup will be held on Thursday, Oct. 4, and Friday, Oct. 5, from 6 to 8 p.m. at 2729 E. Lehigh Ave.

To register online, visit racemenu.com/pink. For more information on the Pink Elephant Movement, visit pinkelephantmovement.org.