The power of human connection was the recurring theme of the annual overdose- and suicide-awareness candlelight vigil Thursday night in Keene’s Central Square.
“We’ve lost people to an overdose, we’ve lost people to suicide, and the connection happening before those moments, before those losses, can in some cases make a difference,” said organizer Jessica White of the group ELM Recovery Connect, formerly Keene Hates Heroin.
The overdose awareness vigil has been held for five years, but White said this was the first time the gathering specifically included suicide as part of its focus.
The reason for the intertwining, White said, was because the issues stem from one another. More than 90 percent of people who died of suicide suffer from depression, have a substance use disorder, or both, the Addiction Center’s website states.
“[There is] an overlap between substance misuse and mental health, and they are prevalent,” White said. “It made sense to be inclusive of both this year.”
In 2018, 16 suicide-related deaths were reported in Cheshire County, according to data from the N.H. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. That same year, 471 fatal overdoses were confirmed statewide.
The Keene event was one of six vigils planned in the state Thursday, collectively called 10,000 Candles for New Hampshire through the promotion of Derry-based RecoverYdia.
About 50 community members gathered in Central Square to symbolically join those across the state, sharing stories of mourning, loss and recovery.
Ryan Gagne, CEO of Live Free Structured Sober Living LLC, which has locations in Keene and Manchester, spoke of his long road to recovery, starting when he was just a child.
“When I was 10 years old, I took a drink of alcohol, and it did something for me internally that nothing had ever been able to do before,” he said. “I was probably willing to give up anything in my life in order to hold on to that.”
It wasn’t until nearly 10 years of cocaine, heroin and alcohol addiction and attempting suicide that Gagne said he entered treatment.
Slowly, he started to gain his family back, build more connections and get control of his life again.
“Active addiction, suicide, those things directly affect a family, but so does recovery,” Gagne said. “The recovery process is just as powerful as active addiction, if not more powerful.”
James Holloway, who is in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, echoed this, saying how he has found his purpose through recovery.
“It’s given me the ability to be a good husband to my wife, I’ve had full custody of my kids for a year and a half ... That’s a gift,” he said, “to be able to be the father I used to think I was in active addiction, but actually be that guy today.”
White, who is in recovery herself, said these connections are what the vigil is about, and why she started it five years ago.
“I don’t care what got you standing in front of me and you saying you need help,” she said. “In that moment, I am looking at a human, and they need another human to respond to them. That’s what nights like this are all about.”
Those seeking recovery resources in Cheshire County can visit the The Doorway at 640 Marlboro Road in Keene (the Curran Building on Route 101) Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or seek support through the state’s 24/7 hotline by calling 211.
To access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-8255. For The Samaritans’ hotline, call 603-357-5505 or 1-866-457-2910.
Twelve local changemakers were honored at The Sentinel’s seventh annual Extraordinary Women celebration Thursday night.
Whether a lawyer, a teacher, an activist or a business owner, all of this year’s honorees could be described with two words, said outgoing Executive Editor Paul Miller, who hosted the event at the Redfern Arts Center: as visionaries and as doers.
“They see opportunity and possibility where others might not, and they do not hesitate to act, to take up a cause,” Miller said, “to marshal a coalition, to address a need or close a void.”
The 12 women from throughout the region were honored at the gala: Brenda Dunn, Ceil Goff, Christine Greenwood-Smart, Ann Heffernon, Kristen Leach, Jeannine Leclerc, Pat Martin, Peggy Pschirrer, Rebecca Todd, Sandra Neil Wallace, Beth Wood and Tammy Woodard.
Each was featured in a video presentation during the gala, and received a commemorative plaque and gift bag. This year’s honorees were also profiled in the “Extraordinary Women” magazine inserted in today’s Sentinel.
The evening’s keynote speaker was Kathleen Soldati, a strategic thinker, executive, mentor, teacher and published author. Soldati was previously the executive director of the Portsmouth Historical Society and, earlier in her career, head of the League of N.H. Craftsmen.
Speaking to the audience Thursday, she recalled the moment when she suddenly knew it was time to leave her job at the latter organization, almost as if a small voice had told her so. But after following that instinct, she struggled to decide on her next professional opportunity.
It wasn’t clear to her why until her brother was later diagnosed with AIDS, she said, an illness that would eventually kill him.
“It’s interesting what you can’t see when you’re in the thick of it. It was only years later that it all made sense. ... I could not have been there for him if my world of work was different,” Soldati told the audience. “Although I didn’t see it at the time, the message was a gift from the universe.”
Soldati told a winding tale of the changes and transitions she’s faced in her life, from escaping violence in her childhood to conquering a fear of water to dealing with the threat of divorce and her husband’s diagnosis with cancer. She remarked that in each situation, she’s navigated the change by listening to that small voice and trusting she would be all right in the end.
“So all I can say to you is what I say to myself: Pay attention. Listen to the universe. It may speak to you in dreams, in the person of someone you meet, or with your emotions. Please consider heeding it,” Soldati said. “Tune in to what you trust, and make your decision, and keep moving.”
The soiree also featured performances from Nimble Arts, a performance troupe of the Brattleboro-based New England Center for Circus Arts. The gravity-defying acts drew oohs and ahs from the crowd as one performer showed off juggling stunts and another wowed attendees with a display of hand balancing, contorting her body while perched on canes.
Still another, dressed as a granny, performed a routine on a German wheel, comically set to the tune of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
It wasn’t the only moment of levity throughout the evening. As one honoree, Tammy Woodard, came to the stage to accept her award, she presented Miller with a pink T-shirt reading “Uplifted from Underneath it All” in honor of his last day at The Sentinel Thursday.
Woodard owns Underneath it All, a boutique in Peterborough that specializes in customized bra fittings to help women feel more comfortable in their own skin. She said she thought it would be nice to give Miller a humorous send-off.
Woodard said the gala was an opportunity to learn about other “extraordinary women” in the area, noting she’s excited there’s an event that recognizes women for the hard work they do in their communities.
“It’s so important, because women, I think, naturally do it, period. We’re always — we’re just nurturers. And we’re not looking for something from it — we just do it,” Woodard said. “But when you are recognized, you’re like, wow. Because you kind of look back and go, hey, yeah, I’m kind of cool!”
A Swanzey man on Thursday pleaded guilty to charges related to an incident in which he chained his girlfriend to a bed and locked her in a room with an 8-year-old child while he went to work.
Michael J. Grant, 33, was sentenced to two to five years in N.H. State Prison. An additional 3½-to-7-year suspended prison sentence will hang over his head for the next 10 years and could be imposed if he fails to remain on good behavior.
Judge David W. Ruoff, who approved the sentence Thursday in Cheshire County Superior Court, had rejected an earlier, more lenient agreement that would have sentenced Grant to two years in jail, with the possibility of release on electronic monitoring after a year.
At a June 27 hearing, Ruoff pressed Grant’s attorney, Jennifer Cohen, and Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Kerry O’Neill to justify that sentencing proposal, signaling that the punishment seemed too light for the actions Grant was accused of. He ultimately vetoed the plea deal.
“I’m not gonna accept the sentence,” Ruoff said at the time. “Some cases just need to go to trial. I think this is one of them.”
In court Thursday, Ruoff and the two attorneys said little about the new agreement.
Grant pleaded guilty to felony reckless conduct, felony criminal restraint, misdemeanor reckless conduct and misdemeanor endangering the welfare of a child.
Police said Grant chained his girlfriend to a bed and confined her to the bedroom the night of May 9. An 8-year-old boy, whom Grant knew, was locked in the room with her, according to an affidavit written by Swanzey police Lt. Joseph DiRusso.
O’Neill said at the last hearing that the boy told a school counselor that Grant confined him and the woman overnight while he went to work.
Swanzey police were notified by the N.H. Division for Children, Youth and Families on May 9 and went to Grant’s house, where they found his bedroom locked from the outside, DiRusso wrote in the affidavit.
Inside, police found the woman chained to the bed by her ankle, along with the boy, who was not restrained, according to the affidavit.
O’Neill, the prosecutor, said at the June hearing that the case is complicated, and the woman has not been cooperative with police. But O’Neill said her understanding is that Grant was accusing the woman of cheating and she agreed to be chained.
“This is a very controlling defendant, I think,” O’Neill said.
In an abusive, controlling relationship, a person may submit to something, but that doesn’t mean it’s voluntary, Linda Douglas, a trauma-informed services specialist at the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, told The Sentinel in June. “That’s what coercive control is all about,” she said.
A Keene City Council committee on Thursday discussed the possibility of a nonprofit thrift store remaining in the city-owned space it has occupied for the past 50 years.
The five-member finance, organization and personnel committee recommended unanimously that Project Share be allowed to stay in the basement of the Keene Recreation Center on Washington Street rent-free until at least June 30.
Previously, Tammy Catozzi of Swanzey, who runs the organization, said she expected to close after this calendar year because the city wanted to start charging rent.
The extension to June 30 — if approved by the full City Council — would give Project Share time to go through the standard process of applying for financial support from the city, which other nonprofit groups do. If granted, that support could be in the form of free or reduced rent.
Project Share sells used clothing and other items out of the 2,000-square-foot space. The proceeds go toward an annual Christmastime charity initiative, Project Santa, which gives things like clothes and toys to kids being raised by grandparents, according to Catozzi.
The organization has used the space rent-free since it moved in around 1970 and has never had a written agreement with the city, according to a presentation from city Parks, Recreation and Facilities Director Andy Bohannon.
City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon told The Sentinel earlier this month that she became aware of the organization when the city was considering whether to expand the recreation center to house the Keene Senior Center. She said she found the lack of a formal agreement “concerning.”
City officials proposed formalizing the arrangement in writing and instituting a $600 monthly rent to cover expenses like heat, electricity and garbage removal, she said. Project Share countered with $300, which Dragon said the city rejected.
The news that Project Share expected to be out of the space after January generated a strong response. The Sentinel’s Aug. 17 report on the topic drew 170 comments, and more than 290 people signed a Change.org petition titled “Keep Project Share Rent Free.”
The topic was subsequently added to the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the City Council’s finance committee.
On Thursday, Dragon and Bohannon recommended continuing Project Share’s current rent-free arrangement until late January, giving the organization time to start the process of requesting financial support from the city as an “outside agency” — the avenue by which The Community Kitchen, Southwestern Community Services, the Hundred Nights shelter and other local nonprofit organizations ask for contributions out of the city budget each year.
“So what we’re proposing is … basically a status quo until they’re able to go through the same process,” Dragon said. That process begins in the fall, when city staff meet with agencies that plan to seek support, she said. The following spring, a committee composed of city staff makes a recommendation after evaluating the groups’ financial statements, impact on the community and other factors.
Ultimately, the full City Council decides which agencies to fund, at what amounts, as part of its annual budget process.
The Council’s finance committee adopted Dragon’s recommendation Thursday but extended the rent-free window until June 30. The city’s fiscal year, when funding for outside agencies would become available, begins July 1.
The committee’s recommendation now goes to the full council for a vote. The next council meeting is Sept. 5.
At Thursday’s meeting, Catozzi told committee members that her mother, Beverly Richmond, and another woman, Hazel Thresher, founded Project Share in 1969.
The organization’s charitable giving used to be open to all children of low income in the county, according to Catozzi, but shifted to focus on grandparents who were raising their grandkids. She said holiday help was not as available for such families.
The organization serves about 250 to 300 kids each year, she said.
Several other people at Thursday’s meeting voiced support for keeping Project Share open, citing its charitable work and describing it as a place where people of modest means can buy affordable clothes.
After the meeting, Catozzi said she was grateful for the outpouring of online support. “We didn’t realize we had so many supporters,” she said.