The past decade was a wrenching one for Lynn and Joe Wencus of Wrentham, Massachusetts, as they tried everything to help their adult son, Jeff, break his addiction to opioids. Unlike other types of crises they had experienced, this one they managed largely alone.
The couple would “hide” at home, Lynn said, because any minute could bring the dreaded call — the one that came during a Christmas party one year — saying Jeff had overdosed again. Other parents would blame them for causing or exacerbating their son’s problems, Lynn Wencus said. As hard as the isolation was, keeping a low profile seemed like a necessity.
“If my son had been suffering for 10 years with cancer, people would have been knocking on my door with dinners in the beginning: ‘How are you doing? What can I do? Let’s plan a menu every night,’” Lynn Wencus said. “When it’s substance abuse, there’s nobody. Nobody. You don’t talk about it.”
The worst day of all came last February on Super Bowl Sunday, when Lynn went to pick up her son at the rehabilitation farm where he lived and found him dead from an overdose. Feeling alienated only compounded the family’s grief.
But while the grief endures nine months later, the isolation has mercifully abated. The Wencuses have become connected to scores of families that have lost loved ones to opioids or are still waging the battle. Their pain is lessened to a degree by the help they are able to provide to others. They trace their new, healing community to an unlikely source: a quirky, cryptic yard sign campaign that started with a small Episcopal congregation.
“It began with the question: how do we tell the folks in this little suburban town of Wrentham that there is this reality that confronts us?” said Ron Tibbetts, missional deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Wrentham. “We wanted to do something that would invite a question. So we came up with the yard sign and just putting #2069 on it.”
The number refers to the epidemic’s jarring death toll in Massachusetts, one of the hardest-hit states. In 2016, 2069 died from opioid overdoses, according to state government’s figures as of last July. Figures revised since then have moved the updated tally above 2,100.
When curious drivers pass the signs and enter #2069 on Facebook, they arrive at an open online community in which 1,400 members — including dozens who have lost a loved one to opioid addiction — share stories, resources, and information on how to spread more signs across Massachusetts.
What began as a local effort to spark awareness snowballed unexpectedly into a statewide movement. More than 1,100 signs now stand in front of homes, businesses, and public agencies from Pittsfield in the west to Newburyport in the northeast. Coverage in Boston television, radio, and newspapers has delivered regional recognition. Fifteen sites, including Trinity Church in nearby Bridgewater, now distribute the signs in an effort to make sure the momentum keeps growing.
“We love this campaign because it’s getting the awareness out in a really simple way,” said Natasha Stewart, rector of Trinity Church in Bridgewater. “We hope that it won’t just end with raising the awareness, but that there will be some ministry to back it.”
Such ministry is already emerging in a way that is almost as unorthodox as the yard signs. Trinity has been hosting events to bring together people who have met online. What happens once they are together is up to them. Just enabling the connection through a combination of simple low-tech and social media is the goal.
In September, Trinity hosted an initial meet and greet. Then on Oct. 28, the church hosted a combination rally and prayer vigil. Music and speakers helped lift the crisis out of the shadows and provide reassurance to all those afflicted and quietly suffering.
“None of us are experts or up on all the legislation, but what should a church do best?” Tibbetts said. “Let people know that they are loved. Sometimes you can’t say any more than that.”
The unexpected success of #2069 traces to brainstorming at the church. Congregants had wanted to shift their focus from regional to local issues, but were unsure about how.
Then the death of Jeff Wencus hit close to home because his father, Joe, is a longtime Trinity member. Members of Trinity’s outreach committee realized how little they knew about the opioid problem and saw their need for knowledge as an opportunity.
The church’s online and physical spaces could function as hubs where those affected by addiction might connect with public health educators, service providers, caseworkers and fellow individuals rocked by the epidemic. But first they needed a compelling way to bring a largely invisible, hurting population to the surface.
The sign campaign didn’t take long to catch fire. Within two hours of planting the first sign, the #2069 Facebook page was abuzz with chatter about the meaning of the number and the importance of drawing the epidemic out of the shadows. The first 25 signs were sold and planted within a few days. After two weeks, the distributed sign count had reached 63 and climbing.
New partnerships cropped up equally fast. When Tibbetts asked Trinity Church in Bridgewater to plant one of the first signs, he discovered a trove of shared passion for the cause. For Mother Stewart, the epidemic is never far away. Her 3-year-old adopted son was born to an opioid-addicted mother and needs special care as a result. Every year since she arrived in Bridgewater in 2008, she has presided at funerals for young addicts. The congregation lost one its own, Emmett Scannell, to opioids in April 2016. Since February, the congregation has hosted a monthly healing service on a Wednesday night for those battling addiction or grieving its toll.
“Trinity does about six funerals a year,” Stewart said. “So for two of them to be related to this [epidemic] in some way makes it a huge percentage of what we do.”
Now Trinity in Bridgewater displays the #2069 sign and serves as a signage distribution site. Those who pick up signs are asked to donate $12 (if they can) to cover costs and keep the program going, Tibbetts said, adding that most people give $20. As more people find their way to #2069 online, they learn about the healing service as well as other resources.
The campaign “is not trying to fix the problem,” Stewart said. “It’s just trying to be an advocate for awareness, which is different from helping people recover. It’s helping particularly family members who are struggling with loved ones who are in the throes of addiction or in recovery.”
Even as the #2069 campaign grows, the mission remains the same: to help people touched by a historic public health scourge to connect, support each other, and be assured that they are loved. The goal is not to push any particular legislation, although Stewart believes heightened awareness could help marshal new resources for detox beds and other underfunded initiatives.
In the meantime, the campaign is demonstrating how a small church with about 60 worshipers on an average Sunday can have an outsized effect in the public square.
The ministry of spreading connections is giving desperate people hope, as Lynn Wencus attests. A mother with an opioid-addicted child recently met her online via the #2069 Facebook community. She asked if they could talk sometime. Wencus said yes.
“Even if it’s just to say, Hey, we can talk about this, let’s not be embarrassed, I would be delighted to do that,” Wencus said. “We have to get rid of the shame. We have to end the stigma.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald