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Tears shed at Erie County budget hearing over opioid epidemic

Erie County lawmakers again heard about the devastating toll of the opioid epidemic as nearly a dozen parents and siblings Tuesday shared their painful stories about their deceased sons and brothers.

"Two years ago was normal," Julie Welsted, a mother, said at a public hearing. "I had my whole family."

Then in December 2015, she lost her first-born son, Christopher, to the opioid epidemic. He was 31. She lost her second son, David, less than a year later.

"He was a waiter at Applebee's, and Christopher was a college student," Welsted said. "And I was very proud of my sons."

It's been several years since county budget hearings transformed into somber and tear-laden events, a testament to the duration and toll of a public health crisis affecting all parts of Erie County.

One after another, parents and siblings shared stories of heartbreak and grief and demanded that local lawmakers continue to do everything possible to support life-saving efforts and expand access to treatment for those struggling with addiction.

Listen to Welsted's testimony:

They also submitted a petition with more than 1,500 signatures to shore up their message.

"There is no dignity in a community that watches their women bury their children," said Debra Smith, who heads the family support and advocacy committee of the Erie County Opiate Task Force. "You are an honorable body with capable minds. We ask your help."

She and other parents challenged legislators to fight against the stigma of addiction.

"We're not here just saying that somebody died," said Rebecca Barnell, who started Colton's Journey to Liberation to change the conversation about substance abuse after her son, Colton Lasker, died. "There's a reason that this is happening, and it's not – the addiction itself is the end of a whole different problem. The stigma keeps people from helping themselves when they're hurting."

Listen to Rebecca Barnell's testimony:

Legislator Lynne Dixon, R-Hamburg, left her seat to offer an arm of comfort as Barnell choked through her testimony. A few other speakers representing cultural organizations, clearly moved by the testimony offered by grieving parents, even adjusted their prepared remarks to recognize the opioid epidemic issue.

Rebecca Barnell, mother of Colton Lasker, speaks about the need to eliminate the stigma of drug addiction. She testified at an Erie County budget hearing on Tuesday. Legislator Lynne Dixon sits beside her to offer support.

Avi Israel, head of Save the Michaels of the World, petitioned legislators to fund his family support and treatment referral organization, which he said has managed to cut through the red tape of government organizations and provide those dealing with drug addiction rapid access to treatment.

"We find treatment on an hour's notice," he said. "I'm proud to say we are able to cut the red tape."

With county help, he said, he hopes to hire two people who can expand the organization's reach. Most of those who work with the organization now are volunteers, he said.

Mark Bucsek, who lost a brother to addiction, directed his message to legislators who have not fully supported efforts to fight the opiate epidemic or who have stayed in the background.

"I ask you to think about and consider at least a couple of questions," Bucsek said. "What is the threshold for the loss of human life? How high does the death toll have to get before we can all join together and address this public health crisis, because we are on a terrifying trajectory. We cannot remain passive."

Mary Beth Konesky lost her son eight days after he left rehab, where he was happy to be in treatment. She read a letter her son wrote her before he came home and suffered a fatal overdose.

Listen to Konesky read the letter her son wrote her while in rehab:

The letter read:

I can't begin to express how much I appreciate all you've done for me. Even though it seems like I've forgotten, I never ever will.

I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to straighten out my life but was never given the proper tools to combat this disease. Someone explained it to me as a warrior going into battle without his armor. He has no defense against his enemy.

Just know that I've never been a bad person and I really do love you through and through. I hope to see you soon. Love you, Mom. DJ

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