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The opioid crisis: the power of patchwork

  • Employees at Pacific Printing in Northampton were helping produce a quilt showing those lost to opioids when they spotted the face of Alex Brezinski, a coworker at Pacific Printing who died of an opiate overdose in 2016. Contributed photo



For the Recorder
Friday, November 30, 2018

When Pacific Printing owner Timothy Bannister volunteered his services to help create a quilt that would embody the enormity of loss caused by the opioid epidemic, he had no idea just how close to home the project would hit.

A graphic artist at his company was painstakingly working with more than 60 individual pieces of art that would become the quilt when she picked up one containing an image familiar to her — and everyone else at Pacific Printing.

It was the summer of 2017, and she found herself looking at an octagonal-shaped piece of yellow paper containing a picture of a bearded man smiling just enough to make his eyes squinty. Next to the photo were hand-written phrases: “A gentle soul with a big aura.” “Loved art, music and people.”

“I said ‘Oh, no,’ and I showed it to Tim,” recalled Rachel King, a 19-year-employee at the company.

The smiling man was Alex Brezinski, who had worked for six years at Pacific Printing.

Bannister knew his former employee had died of an opiate overdose in July of 2016, but it was still a shock to see his image as part of the quilt artwork.

He and others from the company gathered around King’s work station in honor of Brezinski.

“We all looked at it and we all had our moment and then we went on to finish the project,” he said.

“It’s a terrible, terrible drug,” Bannister said. “It’s taken so many.”

The fact that the opioid crisis has taken so many is part of the inspiration behind the quilt project. The brainchild of Merridith O’Leary and J. Cherry Sullivan, project director and program coordinator, respectively, of the regional opioid prevention coalition Hampshire HOPE, the quilt depicts the depth of the anguish caused by the opioid crisis in the community.

The spark for the project emerged at a HOPE gala in June of 2017, where all those attending were invited to place images and words on pre-cut poster board to honor loved ones killed by opiates as well as those still struggling or living in recovery.

“We wanted to show the intersection between those who have passed and those in recovery,” O’Leary said.

Those creations then were posted onto what became known as the hope and remembrance wall, a visual representation meant to offer solace to those who lost loved ones to opioids but also a vision of hope that recovery is possible.

After the wall and its representation of sorrow and inspiration had been carted around to various education and awareness events (including at local overdose vigils), O’Leary set about finding a way to turn it into something even more permanent.

“We had these beautiful poems and sayings and pictures,” O’Leary said. “We just couldn’t take the wall down — there was something so wrong about that.”

A $1,500 donation from Florence Bank allowed her to purchase all the supplies. But she still needed to find someone willing to take on the daunting task of transforming more than 60 pieces of paper art into an old-fashioned quilt.

“She said, ‘Oh, my god, what am I going to do with these?’ and she said, ‘I know, my mom will make a quilt,’ recalled Lyn Johndrow, who happens to be O’Leary’s mother.

“That got me roped into it,” Johndrow said cheerfully.

The project was much easier to imagine than to bring to fruition, but with help from other experts, Johndrow was up to the task. It took more than a year to complete, drawing on not only Pacific Printing, but the Easthampton business Esoteric Empyre, in addition to Johndrow and her quilt-making friend Annie Pietras.

The first part of the process involved Pacific Printing taking each individual piece created by local people at Hampshire Hope events in 2017, cropping them and scanning them into a digital form. Bannister said this was a time-consuming process, taking about 30 hours all told.

Those images were then delivered via a flash drive to Christopher Harman, owner of Esoteric Empyre, which makes customized clothing using direct-to-garment digital printing. On a highly specialized printing machine, Harman transferred the images onto the fabric that Johndrow and Pietras sewed into a quilt.

Like Bannister, Johndrow and Pietras, Harman offered his services for free.

“I felt compelled because everyone has been affected by some sort of addiction in their families or close friends,” he said. “It’s a good way to not let people die in vain.”

Johndrow said the project was especially meaningful to her, having seen up close the devastation the addiction crisis has brought to her family personally as well as the wider community.

“It really just touched my heart,” she said. “I had to do it.”

In the end, there were so many squares, she made two quilts, using off-white, bright yellow-gold and purple fabric. The quilts were presented to the Northampton Recovery Center at its second anniversary event on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, back at Pacific Printing, those who worked with Brezinski before he moved on to work as a glass blower were left to reflect on another life lost too soon.

“He was just the happiest guy anyone could ever meet, always smiling, always laughing,” said Bannister, his former employer. “You would never know he had a problem.”

Handwritten text underneath Brezinski’s picture on his quilt square reads: “Alex made a lasting impression on everyone he met. He greeted everyone with a big bear hug. The beauty and uniqueness of his soul shone through in his glass blowing.”

Those who worked on the project said it was a sad and sobering experience, but there was also something life-affirming about it as well.

“I’m super grateful to be given the opportunity to be part of this great project,” Harman said. “The people who were deceased they weren’t going to die in vain; they were going to be remembered.”

Laurie Loisel is director of community outreach and education for Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of Northampton’s Health Department.