It was a drizzly day in Fishtown the afternoon Reenie Dugan, who was driving around the neighborhood taking care of chores, happened upon an excited crowd of folks participating in a fundraising race for St. Laurentius School. She put on her brakes and watched as runners darted past. Beyond, a crowd of onlookers waved banners and screamed cheers of support.
It was a lot to take in—the sights, the sounds, the windshield wipers—but Dugan found herself homing in on something beyond all those distractions: the rowhomes in the background. “I wondered if there were people on the other side of those closed doors who were stuck in darkness because of addiction taking over their families or themselves.”
What if those people, she wondered, were the subject of all the adulation that she was seeing unfold that afternoon on the street? What kind of difference could that make in their recovery battle, to know that they have the support of a whole community behind them? We’ve seen runs for everything from cancer to AIDS to pets—and they’re all great—but when’s the last time there was a race for drug addiction? It’s certainly warranted.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 47,055 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014—61 percent of which involved opioids. This number is more than double what it was in 2000.
A June 2016 report from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health reported 700 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year—twice the number of homicides in the city. Of those, 45 happened in the River Wards, a district comprising Fishtown and surrounding neighborhoods like Kensington and Port Richmond. That number ties it with North Delaware for the highest rate of overdose deaths in the city.
“Everybody comes here to get high,” Dugan says. “Everybody comes here to buy. It’s a horrible, horrible epidemic that’s going on. Why do we have to go to different parts of the state to raise awareness when the epidemic is full blown in our neighborhood?”
Dugan’s passion for the cause comes from an honest place. She became dependent on painkillers after having knee surgery during her sophomore year of college. It took her seven years to beat the addiction. She has found recovery, and hopes to use her experience to reach addicts and their families in an area of the city that desperately needs it.
With the help of family, friends and local race coordinators, Dugan decided to create her own charity 5K, called the Pink Elephant, that would benefit people in her community battling drug addiction.
“I thought it would be really nice if we could start a run for addiction—like where people actually run in the neighborhood where people are struggling, where people are sick, where people are suffering,” she says.
The first Pink Elephant happens this Saturday, and Dugan says she’s seen an outpouring of support and interest from the community: “It’s become way bigger than anything we ever imagined it could be. We initially thought we’d get maybe 50 to run, but there are 350 registered.” Same-day registration could boost those numbers even more.
We caught up with Dugan this week to chat more about the mission behind Pink Elephant.
THE PHILADELPHIA CITIZEN: First off, why did you call the race Pink Elephant?
REENIE DUGAN: Because [drug addiction] is so often the elephant in the room, and pink is associated with intoxication. It’s like a bright pink elephant in the room. You know it’s there, but nobody really wants to talk about it. We’re just here to shed light on it.
THE CITIZEN: With so many runners signed up, you’re bound to raise a lot of money for the cause. How do you plan on spending it?
DUGAN: There are a couple different things we’re going to do. We’re going to help other people—like if someone is trying to get into treatment and doesn’t have insurance, we can help out where we can. If someone is looking to go to a sober-living facility after treatment, we could pay their first two weeks’ rent while they’re job hunting. We also know there are so many people out there raising their grandkids because addiction took the lives of their children. We want to be able to help them in some way or another, to help the kids who are left behind from this.
THE CITIZEN: How has your experience with addiction informed the mission behind Pink Elephant? Why is it important, for instance, that you focus on stigma?
DUGAN: I struggled alone for a lot of years. I didn’t say anything, because I was embarrassed. I was afraid to let my parents down. I was afraid of people judging me. There are so many people who feel exactly the same way; it can happen to anybody. I tried to get sober on my own multiple times and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get through one day for seven years. It was a nightmare. So the biggest purpose of the race is to raise awareness, and to fight the stigma around addiction—for people who are addicted and their families. People are afraid to ask for help. Families are ashamed and feeling like it may be their fault, and it’s not. People need to know that there are places to go. There are resources. We need to shed light on this secret that’s not really a secret at all.
THE CITIZEN: You talk a lot about family—almost more than you talk about people who are actually addicted to drugs. Why?
DUGAN: Families can get as sick if not sicker than the addicts, because they live a life of constant worry. Their lives are consumed by the addicts, and it doesn’t have to be that way. People should still be able to go on and live their lives whether their loved one gets help or not. I focus on family because I know that people are ashamed. My parents, at times, felt like it was their fault. I’m sure there were times when they felt ashamed or embarrassed, but my addiction had nothing to do with them. Nobody should feel like they have to put the blame on themselves for anyone else’s life. Families need to know they can be okay no matter what the results. There’s help out there. There are people who will carry you through this process. You don’t have to sit at home feeling like you’re in a dark spot just because your loved one is.
THE CITIZEN: Why keep the race in Fishtown?
DUGAN: First of all, because I’m from here. I’ve lived here all my life. But I also know a lot of people in the neighborhood who are affected—whether they’re using themselves or have loved ones who are addicted. People come from all over the place to buy drugs in Kensington—from Delaware County and New Jersey. I’ve even heard of people from New York coming to Kensington to buy drugs. It’s a horrible, horrible epidemic that’s going on—and it’s happening in our backyard.
THE CITIZEN: You’re doing something special for people who have lost their lives to addiction, too, right?
DUGAN: We got photos blown up of people who passed away, and they will be posted along the race route. No one should leave this world being thought of as just another addict who didn’t make it. These people meant something to someone. They were children, they were parents. they were brothers sisters. Every time you see an addict, there’s someone in the background who loves that person. When I run Saturday, I just feel like I’m going to get jolts of inspiration just seeing those photos or the families standing there with them.
The Pink Elephant takes place Saturday, October 1. There are lots of ways to get involved—from running to walking to volunteering. Race day registration begins at 8:30 a.m. near the starting line, at Cione Playground on Aramingo and Lehigh avenues. The race kicks off at 10 a.m. For more information, or to register online, visit racemenu.com.
If you are an addict or a family member affected by addiction in need of help, you can reach Reenie Dugan and the Pink Elephant at [email protected].Header photo by Sabina Louise Pierce