Philly’s Overdose Memorial Garden honors those who have died from substance use disorders

Terri Spina chokes back tears after placing a marker for her daughter in the Philadelphia Overdose Memorial Garden. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Terri Spina chokes back tears after placing a marker for her daughter in the Philadelphia Overdose Memorial Garden. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Terri Spina knelt next to a bed of purple and pink flowers. She then stuck a small wooden plant tag into the soil. On it, she had written her daughter’s name: Ginamarie Vicent.

“She was beautiful, kind, caring, very loving, very loving. She would just give you the shirt off her back if you needed it,” Spina said. “She was my best friend, and an awesome big sister. I just … I could go on and on about the most amazing person she was. But the addiction took her away from us.”

Spina joined other Philadelphians in Center City Wednesday in a pop-up garden created by the city to mark International Opioid Overdose Awareness Day. It will be open every day through Sept. 30.

The Philadelphia Overdose Memorial Garden opens on Thomas Paine Plaza in the shadow of City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
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The garden is intended to honor loved ones who have died from opioid and substance use disorders, and to call attention to an ongoing addiction epidemic.

More than 1,000 people have died in Philadelphia from drug overdoses since 2017, said Mayor Jim Kenney at the garden’s ribbon-cutting ceremony

“Their loved ones continue to fight by demonstrating that this can happen to anybody,” he said. “Nobody is immune to a tragedy like this, and only by speaking up can we begin to squash the stigma. So much more can be done to prevent future tragedies.”

Ramon Cruz speaks at the opening ceremony of the Philadelphia Overdose Memorial Garden about his struggles with addiction and the death of his son, Christopher, from overdose earlier this year. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For Spina, seeing so many other families who have experienced a similar loss is “heartbreaking,” but at the same time, “to know all of us are not alone, that’s kind of comforting.”

Just a few feet away, Gwen LeGrande placed a plant tag in a garden bed with her son’s name, Christopher Tubbs, who died in May of an overdose.

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“Christopher was a young man who cared about people. He gave to people even when he didn’t have anything,” she said. “He made a lasting impact on their life. He’s so truly missed by all of his friends and family, and I think this is an excellent way to keep his memory alive.”

Gwen LeGrand holds photos of her son, Christopher Tubbs, during the opening ceremony of the Philadelphia Overdose Memorial Garden. Tubbs died of an overdose in May at the age of 26. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The number of overdose deaths in Pennsylvania had been declining in recent years, but they spiked again during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 5,331 people died in Pennsylvania in 2021, according to preliminary state data.

Spina’s daughter, Ginamarie, was among them. She said she wishes substance use treatment was more accessible to people seeking help.

Terri Spina holds a photo of her daughter, Ginamarie Vicent, and the marker she will place in the Philadelphia Overdose Memorial Garden. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“My daughter tried time and time again. She’d go five, six days in detox, and then they’d put her back out,” Spina said. “They need to do better.”

Philly HEALs, a bereavement program in  the city’s Department of Public Health, will host a month-long series of events to increase awareness about the epidemic and offer support, education, and resources to survivors and people in recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24-hour hotline that offers referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Call 1-800-662-HELP for more information.

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