Thanks to the dedication of Penticton’s Gord Portman, people now have a beautiful spot to sit and remember loved ones lost to the ongoing toxic drug crisis.
On Thursday, on International Overdose Awareness Day, more than 75 people gathered at the grassy area of Marina Way to be part of the unveiling of a memorial bench.
The installation features an interlocking bench design that represents the connection of the community. An empty space in the middle and separate seating symbolize the isolation and loneliness of those struggling with addiction, said Portman who helped in the design.
“When I started this project, I had lost 104 friends to overdose and now it’s up to 127,” said Portman, who broke down thinking of those gone including his best friend Brad. It was that loss that started the idea of a memorial bench in Penticton.
“Brad and I grew up together. He was number one on a waitlist to get into a treatment centre. He was eight months clean, and relapsed in a Walmart bathroom and died.”
Portman spent several years experiencing homelessness and suffering with substance use disorder. He is now three years substance free, reconnected with his family and now helping others suffering from addiction.
The bench is strategically located near a spot where Portman used to sleep rough.
“I used to sleep on a rock just down there,” he pointed. “This is the place I’d come to mourn all the people I had lost and to hide away from my family.
Sometimes you just need a moment of peace so you can remember the good times and help wash away some of the sadness.”
Matriarchs from Moms Stop the Harm, whose children were killed by poisoned drugs, also spoke about what the memorial bench means to them and how we have to keep pushing for safe supply.
“It is my hope that people will sit here to love, honour and remember and perhaps meet others in their grief so they can lighten each other’s load,” said one mom who lost her son seven years ago.
She thanked Portman for dreaming big, showing compassion and the power of positive thinking to make this bench a reality.
After the emotional ceremony, a bagpiper began to play and people were invited to write in chalk the names of loved ones lost to the toxic drug supply.
By the end of the song, dozens of names filled the area around the bench.
Portman’s mother joined him for a hug and to sit on the bench together.
“I have my mom back. She’s my best friend,” said an emotional Portman.
Portman’s sister Pam was also there to support her brother.
“I’m so proud of Gord,” she said. “We talk every day now and I know he won’t go back to drugs because he has too much to lose. We lost Gord for a long time. At first, he hid it from us. My mom paid for expensive rehab for him a few times but he had to want it.”
It took Portman only two weeks to raise more than $8,300 towards the cost of the bench. The city contributed to the remainder.
“When Gord came to council and asked for the City of Penticton’s support to honour, recognize and remember those who have lost their lives to this deadly crisis it was such an easy decision to get behind,” said Mayor Julius Bloomfield. “The impact of the opioid crisis is far-reaching and strikes across all social and economic lines. It is a symbol of our shared responsibility to work together to build a stronger and more connected community.”
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