Philly’s opioid crisis

Amid the torrent of Philly overdose deaths, a single vigil can help

“It stands for everybody that’s associated with this disease.”

Attendees help light candles to remember John Paul, who died of an overdose last Friday.

Attendees help light candles to remember John Paul, who died of an overdose last Friday.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
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In the middle of a candlelight vigil outside the Kensington Storefront Thursday night, the somber mood was momentarily broken.

“Are you kidding me?” a man passing by remarked. “People die out here every day.”

His point is not moot. Located in the heart of Philly’s opioid epidemic, the Storefront — a Mural Arts addiction resource center on Kensington Avenue near Somerset — is no stranger to death. Kathryn Pannepacker, who hosts a textiles class there twice a week, often wonders what has happened to her regular attendees when they disappear for days, weeks or months at a time.

Still, Thursday night’s vigil was the first the Storefront had ever hosted.

The ceremony was held in honor of John Paul, aka JP, who was among the most loyal regulars at the Storefront. Volunteers said every day when they arrived to open up shop, he was already there, waiting to help out — until last Friday, when he died of an overdose.

For people who work with those in active addiction — and those in recovery — death can become an all-too-common presence. Last year, 1,217 people died in Philadelphia from an unintentional drug overdose. That’s up 34 percent from 2016, the Medical Examiner’s Office reported on Tuesday.

JP’s loss loomed especially large.

“He was a huge presence,” said Ashley Flynn, who leads a Storefront workshop called Journaling for Survivors. “Whenever I needed people to come to class, he would start rounding people up for me. Everybody listened to him. Everybody went to him for advice.”

It was especially tough for Brandi. She and JP first met years ago, back in high school. After graduation, they never imagined they’d see each other again. But when they met by accident four years ago, they fell in love, and were together until the day he died.

John Paul was kind and lovable, and someone who always lent his friends a helping hand. “But he struggled a lot,” Brandi said. “He had a lot of struggles with his health, his addiction, his family. It just weighed on him. I tried to be there for him, because everybody needs to be loved, no matter what their struggle is.”

For some people, the question seemed to be: why now?

“It’s not that we haven’t had people die, but he particularly was such a presence here,” Flynn said. “We all loved him.”

For people who attended, the vigil honoring JP was much bigger than just one man.

“He represents, to me, himself,” textile teacher Pannepacker said, “but also everyone that we’ve lost, and everyone we’re still looking for.”

Michael Worthy works regularly with people in recovery. Since he entered his own recovery 10 years ago, he founded a 12-step group in Kensington’s Greater Church of Philadelphia, and he’s a regular volunteer at the Storefront.

Worthy has lost so many people to addiction, he said he’s almost become numb to it.

“Death becomes almost a normality, so we don’t feel it as much as we should be feeling it anymore,” Worthy said.

But a ceremony like this, Worthy said, allows people who experience loss so regularly to take a moment to feel that loss, and ultimately to heal.

“Vigils like this never represent the individual only,” he said. “It stands for everybody that’s associated with this disease.”