‘If we can just save one person, it’s worth it.’
“Six years ago, I lost my son James to a drug overdose. He was 19 years old. We found out that he was going to be a father; now I have a granddaughter. She’s my pride and joy; her name is Violet. She is everything to me, and I see her all the time. She looks like him and certainly is a heavenly gift.
“I was lucky enough in a weird way to know someone who was heavily connected to the Neighborhood House in Sayville, a professionally run support group for anyone who has lost someone to drug overdose or suicide, because both of those things carry a heavy stigma. I knew nothing about grief, and the Neighborhood House gave me so many necessary tools to navigate what we like to say is our new normal.
“There’s life before James and now there’s life after. One of the most shocking truths was that the grief journey is a lifelong journey. Over time it does soften, but it doesn’t go away. You need to do the work to navigate that and find joy in your life. We talk about our kids; they’re so much more than their addiction. The program runs four times a year, eight-week sessions, and it’s professional counseling, family-style meals, art therapy, meditation. It’s a wonderful program. Very recently, they asked me to join the board. I go into the groups on week five or six and speak to them so they can gain perspective of what it looks like six years out.
“Through that, I met Linda Nuszen, who lost her son Adam seven years ago. He used to make beads that have inspirational messages on them when he was in rehab and at home. Linda started Beading Hearts; she makes these beads and started giving them to other angel moms, moms who lost a child to an overdose.
“She started with two people and it grew to 700 members. A large part of that is COVID; when we wouldn’t meet live anymore, we went national through Zoom. I’ve been part of the Beading Hearts for four years. It’s all about the camaraderie and community of people who have lost a child to an overdose.”
‘We believe our journey mirrors theirs because recovery is a lifelong journey and grief is a lifelong journey.’
“I’m head of the Beading Hearts jail committee. Suffolk County Undersheriff Kevin Catalina asked me if we wanted to work in the jail; he thought it could be very impactful. We work with Sheriff’s Addiction Treatment Program. We go in twice a month and speak to the inmates and let them know their lives matter. James was never in jail, but after working with SATP, I wish he was. Insurance pays for 28 days of rehab, and it’s not enough. With SATP, they get that gift of time, and they get to know themselves as a sober person. We believe our journey mirrors theirs because recovery is a lifelong journey and grief is a lifelong journey. And we’re that motherly hug that so many of them need and crave. We’re there to support them, hope for them and dream for them.
“It’s my most favorite thing to do. We also bring premade beads to the jail and go around in a circle and read the message that they get. The words always seem to land with the right person. We also work in sober living, New Hope Rising, which are really good quality recovery housing in Shirley and Mastic. The homes are a homey feel. They really do care; they’re very hands on. We go there once a month, and we share our stories, and we make the beads with them with their own inspirational messages.
“Linda [Nuszen] inspired me to start my own foundation, the James Pinka Foundation. I raise money for Beading Heart, Neighborhood House and New Hope Rising, and then very recently I got approval to launch a CrossFit program in the jail. It’s the idea of replacing a bad addiction with a good one. [In] an addict’s mind, the thrill and the chase that you have with CrossFit and the endorphins that are released are similar to what addicts chase with drugs. If we come across an inmate who’s interested in fitness, James Pinka Foundation would fund training them. We’ll offer scholarships to gyms once the inmates are released.
“How to fight recidivism is family, faith and fitness. When I found that out, I thought this is just the perfect marriage. We should launch very, very soon. I really do think this is going to be impactful. If we can just save one person, it’s worth it.”
Interviewed by Rachel O’Brien – Morano