Eleven portraits hang at the State Capitol building in Hartford. Each frame holds a different face. Behind each face, is a story of struggle and hope.
"Hope that not only can you survive, but you can thrive," said Jeanne Milstein, director of Human Services for the City of New London.
"Living Proof" is a mobile art exhibit hosted by the Overdose Action Team of Southeastern Connecticut. The portraits feature people from Southeastern CT who have partnered with the team to reduce stigma associated with substance use disorder.
"We hope people will look at the photos and think, 'this could be my cousin, my child, my parent,'" said Milstein. "Everyone is impacted by this disease."
The portraits are also designed to raise awareness of resources that are available to the community.
"We are honored that they would step forth and share their stories with the community and trust us to be a part of this work," said Jennifer Muggeo, deputy director of the Ledge Light Health District.
A professional photographer, Fred Hartman, volunteered his time to take the portraits.
“Photographing these volunteers gave me opportunity to put faces on individuals in the recovery process," Hartman wrote in a press release.
The exhibit is on display in the concourse at the State Capitol through the end of the month. The portraits will then be seen at the Westerly Library in Rhode Island on March 4. The team is eager to bring the portraits and discussion to more locations across the Southeastern CT region.
Raymond "Slim" Jones stands proudly in front of a portrait. The man looking back at him has a slight smile washed across his face. He looks content.
"It is warming to me that I am standing here talking about this picture," said Jones.
Jones is one of 11 people featured in the "Living Proof" exhibit. He has been sober for more than 35 years. The text next to his picture reads, "I am proof that it is never too late."
"That is a person who come a long way. Trials and tribulations," said Jones, pointing to his portrait.
Jones moved to Connecticut from Tennessee and faced many struggles, including experiencing hate and racism. He chronicled a long life for NBC Connecticut, sharing stories of fighting to graduate from high school, appreciation for his wife, who he says has kept him grounded, and stories of battling addiction for more than 30 years.
Jones said he started smoking pot a young age, but he still remembers the day that one of his friends asked him if he would like to try heroin.
"I happened to say yes," said Jones. "I was hooked on it for 35 years."
Jones said that heroin led him to stealing and eventually prison. He said he met a nurse named Michelle who brought him back to life and helped him get sober.
"I got tired of being locked up. I got tired of coming out, doing things that I didn't need to do to get the stuff," said Jones. "I decided that I am going to do something else with my life. That's what led me to that picture that you are watching."
Jones said he wants the portraits to help other people who may think wellness is out of reach.
"I want them to take away...hope," said Jones. "If you trust in your belief, never give up. Never give up that you can do something different than what you are doing."
"I just want to say hi to him," said George Walker, with a slight chuckle.
He is standing in front of his own portrait. A black and white picture, Walker centered, with a steady gaze.
"It is a fella that somehow made it through the, the madness I would say," said Walker.
The text next to his portrait reads, "I am living proof that it is possible." The line below adds, "From Prison, To PhD. Where I was, Where I am."
"It is a little bit surreal, all of this, considering the past and where I stand now," said Walker.
Walker said he started using drugs at the age of 10, growing up in the South Bronx.
"Using made sense. It gave me a sense of community and it quieted the noise," said Walker. "Somehow that first I used, I was able to exhale. Literally, I said, 'Where have you been all my life?' And that was at 10 years old."
Walker said he fell in love with drugs and used for more than 40 years. He said that his journey included many years in prison and over a decade living on the streets of New York.
"I was so filled with shame and guilt," said Walker. "I could not stand the smell of myself. I couldn't stand the fact that the gifts and opportunities I had been given in this life I had wasted so horribly."
Walker said he did not have any great epiphany. He feared that he would die a worthless death if he continued to use drugs.
"I simply couldn't stand being myself anymore," said Walker.
Walker said he left New York and went to Florida. On September 30, 2000, he had his last drink.
"No day has been as bad as that last one," said Walker. "If I can do it, you can do it. There is hope and hope is one of the most powerful forces in this universe I believe."
The Overdose Action Team
Since 2016, stakeholders across New London County have been meeting together to organize resources for overdose response.
Facilitated by Ledge Light Health District, community agencies including the New London Fire Department, the City of New London and Alliance for Living make up the Overdose Action Team.
"For more than three years, our community partners have really rallied around the idea that the only way we are going to address this public health emergency is by working together," said Jennifer Muggeo, Deputy Director of the Ledge Light Health District.
Through coordinated efforts, recovery navigators and firefighters go out into the community to meet with people immediately after an overdose. They are on the ground, letting people know about what resources are available.
"We are breaking down barriers because it is important that people have immediate access to treatment and support," said Jeanne Milstein, Director of Human Services for the City of New London. "We also have prescribers who actually ride around in a van and can prescribe medicine in the field."
According to Muggeo, 90 percent of the people who they are able to bring treatment to in the field then stay with that treatment and continue getting the help they need.
Non-fatal overdoses are down in the City of New London. Both Muggeo and Milstein said they would like to believe the efforts of the Overdose Action Team, supported by community partnerships, helped impact the data.
"We meet people where they are," said Milstein. "Breaking down barriers, we do that everyday, so people can have immediate access to the kind of treatment and recovery support services they need."