In a sea of shirts praising religion and recovery or honoring lost loved ones, Fonzi Alvez stood out.
Alvez, one of 906 people marching from Esther Short Park to the Interstate 5 Bridge on Monday, wore a solid white T-shirt with messages written in black marker. The messages varied from his name to “believe in yourself” to “God bless you.”
They were written by Alvez’s peers in his recovery treatment program. Before he left, they made him the shirt, which he wore for support and backup on Monday to the 19th annual Hands Across the Bridge event.
“It’s my motivation to keep going and keep my sobriety strong,” he said.
Hands Across the Bridge is an event every Labor Day where people in recovery from substance addiction issues meet to celebrate their efforts, and join in hands across the I-5 Bridge. The Vancouver group meets up with a group coming from Portland on the bridge. The event also signals the start of Recovery Month, which the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration sponsors every September.
Tabby Stokes, vice chairwoman of the Hands Across the Bridge Project, said that each year, the administration announces what the theme for that year’s event will be. This year’s theme was “together we are stronger.” Prior to walking to the bridge, speakers in Esther Short Park led countless call-and-response chants of “together we are …” and “stronger!”
“There is strength in numbers,” Stokes said. “This event brings around feelings of unity. We want people to get involved.”
Chocho, a Vancouver resident who goes by and provided only that name, said he grew up in a family of 10 in a shelter near Esther Short Park. He decided from a young age to be a “career criminal” and spent much of his life until his 30s doing that. He said the key to recovery is assembling a team.
“If you build a strong recovery, you will live a strong life,” he said. “A strong recovery is built on unity.”
Chocho and Ruben Renteria of Vancouver are trying to help bring that unity and support to younger people in recovery. On Sept. 11, they’ll launch the Xchange Discovery Youth Ministry through Xchange Recovery. The ministry will work with those battling substance abuse issues ages 13-19. Renteria said the idea has been in the works for years.
“We’re going to have our own brick and mortar,” he said. “We have a home now, somewhere the kids can take ownership of. That’s been the dream and the goal.”
Part of the goal of the program will be to show younger people there are ways to bounce back after struggling.
“Don’t go where the path may lead,” Renteria said. “Go where there is no path and leave a trail. We’re raising leaders.”
Renteria said Hands Across the Bridge is also a reminder to those participating that there is a way out from substance abuse.
“It’s a testament to recovery,” Chocho said. “We do recover. The hope is alive and well.”
While the hundreds in attendance Monday were honoring their own recovery efforts, plenty were also honoring people who weren’t, or couldn’t, make the event. Tiffany Hayes of Vancouver spoke about her friend, Alee Hines, 25, of Vancouver, who is in hospice care after repeated issues from heroin use.
“We really do die,” Hayes said. “She knows she made bad decisions. This is consequence of using drugs. But she is still full of hope. It’s important to show that we do not kick our fallen. We love unconditionally.”