METHUEN – As the doors opened and people began filing into the Methuen Armory, city police chief Joseph Solomon could not help but smile.

"This has been almost a year in the making," Solomon said. "I'm very glad this is happening. It's a fantastic feeling."

On Saturday, the first annual "To be Aware is to be Alive" community event, hosted by the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project, saw dozens of residents from the Merrimack Valley come and learn more about the issue of substance abuse plaguing the area and addiction prevention options.

The event, sponsored by both the Methuen police and fire departments, as well as Holy Family Hospital, featured an expert panel of law enforcement officials, drug abuse counselors and even recovering addicts, who all discussed the different ways to combat substance abuse.

Many community resources were available to provide information about the work being done to help those suffering from addiction receive proper treatment. Organizations present included Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, Methuen High School Students Against Destructive Decisions and the Massachusetts Organization of Addiction Recovery.

"What we are doing here today is so important," State Representative Diana DiZoglio, who helped form the MVPASAP, said before the crowd. "Hopefully, this is the beginning of a growing revolution to combat this issue."

The MVPASAP began just eight months ago, and the idea for the event came about after Solomon appeared on the Methuen Community Television show "The Empty Chair," a show dedicated to raising awareness about addiction.

Hosted by Methuen resident Phil Lahey and his daughter, Colleen, a recovering addict with six years free from drugs, Solomon went on the show to talk about the police department's efforts in helping residents and families affected by substance abuse.

"We wanted to have (Solomon) as a guest, and while we're just talking, he had this great idea for an annual event," Lahey said. "He really planted the seeds for today to happen."

After opening remarks from Solomon, DiZoglio, State Senator Kathleen O'Connor Ives and State Representative Linda Dean Campbell, Lahey and his daughter joined the panel discussion, where the topics ranged from recognizing symptoms to understanding how anyone, regardless of upbringing, can become a victim of addiction.

Curt Cassista, a Methuen resident, spoke of his own recovery process and his desire to help others struggling with substance abuse today.

"We (addicts) aren't bad people. We're just sick people trying to get better," Cassista said afterwards. "Now that I'm better, I want to help addicts get jobs and get back on their feet. A little help, and a little encouragement go a long way in recovery."

The subject material and genuine openness of the panel stuck with members of the audience.

"The panel was so impressive," O'Connor Ives. "It really represented the importance of this issue. For some of those people to go up and talk about their own struggles was extremely brave."

Overall, the organizers behind "To be Aware is to be Alive" want those suffering from substance abuse, whether they be addicts themselves or family members of addicts, to take advantage of these resources and accept the help.

"When my daughter was going through her problems, I learned a lot about addiction," Lahey said. "Our goal is to get parents to not be afraid to learn. We want people not to feel the shame of coming to an event like this. They are meant to help, and hopefully people will understand that."

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