The PRO-ACT Recovery Walk, organized by the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, looked a little bit different this year.
“Typically, our Recovery Walks have 30,000 people walking strong to show what recovery looks like,” said the council’s executive director, Jennifer King.
But with the pandemic in full swing, only a handful of people were able to participate in this year’s in-person walk, which is meant to raise awareness about breaking the stigma surrounding drug addiction. The rest of the walkers were able to participate virtually, by walking through their own neighborhoods to raise awareness. It started and ended at Penn’s Landing two weekends ago. But there was one thing that wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“This is Team Toni’s fourth year in a row being the top fundraiser,” said King. “It’s really important to their family. They want to honor their sister.”
Toni was the daughter of Linda and Tony Canale, and the younger sister of Nicole Canale, Jennifer Rossano and Linda Milano. Four years ago, with the inclusion of their children and significant others, the South Philly-based family banded together to create Team Toni for the annual walk. They do it all in honor of Toni, who, after a long struggle with heroin addiction, passed away from an overdose in 2017.
“It’s a vision that I’ll never get out of my head,” said Linda Canale. “Toni was a very fun, great spirit, always wanting to help others.”
Despite Toni’s addiction, her family was sure of one thing: She loved them and didn’t want to die.
“Six weeks before she passed away, she was in rehab and she wrote me a letter,” said Milano. “She wrote, ‘I’m doing things differently this year. My way doesn’t work. I believe in recovery, and recovery is possible. I’m going to include all of you in my recovery journey. I want to live. I don’t want to die.’ ”
Those words have stuck in Milano’s head “year after year.”
“We want to encourage people that there is hope and that recovery is possible and there are people out there who care for you,” she said. “Even if you do feel alone, you’re never alone.”
And Toni’s family has the donations to prove it. This year, Team Toni raised a personal record of $5,600.
“If you know anything about South Philly, everybody knows everybody and it’s like one big family,” said Rossano. “I have people who donated that I went to grade school with and they say, ‘I remember Toni! You used to push her around in the baby coach.’ ”
Toni’s family would get creative with how they raised money. Over the course of the four years, they’ve participated in the walk, they’ve held benefits and raffles and sold bracelets, T-shirts and hats emblazoned with the Team Toni logo.
Milano said that one of the chief reasons she walks is to break the stigma of addiction.
“The stigma is just as deadly as the addiction itself,” she said. “There’s tools and help out there for the addiction part of it, but for the stigma, you’re kind of left out like a fish out of water trying to fend for yourself. We’re trying to change that.”
Evidence shows that people suffering from addiction can be triggered by people calling them offensive names like “addicts” or “junkies.”
“Toni’s addiction was often triggered,” said Nicole Canale. “One of her biggest triggers was when people looked down upon her. Because no matter how good she was doing, she was still labeled as an addict and it took a toll on her.”
Linda Canale told SPR that there were “very many people who called my daughter names, and they weren’t nice names.”
“As a mother, I am going to go out and fight,” she said. “My last words to her were, ‘You never, ever drop your head for anyone.’ ”
Toni’s family felt that completing the walk this year was especially important because of how much the opioid crisis has been drowned out of the news cycle by the pandemic. In fact, overdoses have skyrocketed during the pandemic by 18 percent in March, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May, according to a Washington Post report.
“Everything I’m hearing now is issues around the pandemic,” Linda Canale said. “But [opioid addiction] issues didn’t go away.”
Team Toni decided to participate in the walk because it was Toni’s goal to participate after she got clean from drugs.
“She asked me years ago, can we make Team Toni?” Rossano said. “I said, ‘When you’re in recovery, we’ll do whatever it takes.’ We knew this was something she wanted us to do for her.”
The 2020 edition of the PRO-ACT Recovery Walk was the 20th annual event. Since 2002, the City of Philadelphia has partnered with PRO-ACT to plan the walk, and the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities once again served as the grand sponsor. For more information about PRO-ACT Recovery Walks, visit recoverywalks.org.