After five years of a festival focused on bringing local students out of their artistic shell, Morse Rocks is morphing into this weekend’s Hope Rocks, a free two-day event at the Cantine Veterans’ Memorial Complex that at its heart is meant to give hope to those suffering from addiction and depression by blending live music, sports, and fun activities with advocacy, education and support.
“It’s kind of inspiration from desperation,” said Joe Defino, founder of Morse Rocks, longtime special education teacher at Grant D. Morse Elementary, and academic advisor for the school’s newspaper and news website Just Print It. “I am a teacher, and four years ago … I attended my first former student’s funeral as a result of an overdose. And since that time I’ve attended funerals or memorial services of 10 more. I’m up to 11 students, kids that I taught in my little town in our little elementary school that have died an unnatural death due to an opioid addiction or suicide.”
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, over 44,000 people in the country die by suicide each year, with 25 times as many attempting suicide. And according to a 2015 reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid addiction and related deaths are on the rise in the United States, with around 91 deaths each day due to heroin, prescription and non-prescription opioids. Hope Rocks hopes to bring people together to celebrate community and let people who are suffering know they’re not alone.
“There’s over 100 volunteers involved in this,” said Debbie Sgroi, a Hope Rocks volunteer. “Almost every one of them has been touched in some way by addiction, depression, isolation and suicide in their families and friends.”
On the musical side, Hope Rocks will feature five stages of live bands on Saturday, Aug. 19 and Sunday, Aug. 20 with spin Cycle Lava, the Paul Luke Band, I Got a Rock, and the Ronson Brothers among the highlights on the Bandstand Stage; Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Ian Flanigan, Karma Darwin and Hudson’s Crew on the Ice Arena Stage; Katie Hoffstatter, CC Ryder, Jules Taylor, and Joshua Tree among those playing the Acoustic Stage; DJ Riley, the New Life Church Choir, and Tom Upgrade among those on the Hope Rocks Stage; and Vision Serpent, Porcelain Helmet, Human Extinction, Fuse, and Lost Aesthetic on the Saturday-only Skate Park Stage.
There’s also arts and crafts, athletic events, prominent speakers from the local community and beyond, and the Hope Village, a gathering of mental health and addiction specialists for those in need and those who simply want to learn more.
“There will be all sorts of advocacy and support, and even onsite counseling for those who need it,” said Sgroi. “The sponsors and volunteers all wanted to show that this is a community, and as a community we’re all involved. It’s almost like a rallying of support.”
“Community” is a big part of Hope Rocks for Defino, but he said it’s also the best chance at tackling complex issues of addiction and depression.
I certainly think it would be remarkable if these types of things didn’t have to be, where we didn’t have to raise awareness, where we didn’t have to educate, where we didn’t have to make the community to be more empowered to deal with these situations. When I say community, I think of it with a capital ‘C,’ because it’s not just Saugerties. It’s the community of people, and everybody is affected by it.”
Reaching the Community — with a capital “C” — is one of the key reasons for Morse Rocks becoming Hope Rocks.
“The objective of [Morse Rocks] was to provide students who had talents outside of the traditional academic realm of losing interest in school, and some finding themselves in difficult circumstances because they felt they didn’t belong,” Defino said. “The Morse Rocks concept was put in place to give these students a chance to have their shining moment with professional artists and professional musicians in an authentic rock ’n’ roll festival. That went on from 2011 through last year, and it was very, very successful in achieving its goal. … But we always go through and review the festival and look at ways to improve, things we might have missed, those types of things, and I had this nagging thought that we should expand our objective, broaden it to include education, to turn this vicious cycle of death and despair around.”
‘We have to try’
Defino said that the swell of support that’s grown over the past few months would not have been possible without the involvement of Carole Kelder, principal of Mount Marion Elementary School, whose son Ryan died of a drug overdose two years ago; and Diane Missasi, whose son Anthony committed suicide in April 2011. Kelder and Missasi are involved with Raising Your Awareness about Narcotics (RYAN) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention respectively.
“Not one addict wants to be an addict,” Defino said. “Not one person who suffers from depression wants to be depressed. How do we help them? It’s easier said than done, but we have to try. We want our festival to be life-giving and hopeful, so we want it to include a lot of activity. But the most important thing is we needed to have service providers — people, organizations — that work in these particular fields of addition or mental health, recovery, education. That had to be the real focus of the festival. This illuminates the issues so we can attack the issues, deal with the issues, and deal with them from the ground up rather than the top down.”
Asked what would be a measure of success for the inaugural Hope Rocks festival, Sgroi said it was likely something intangible.
“What would make it successful is just for people to show up,” she said. “It’s a community event, it’s free and welcome to everyone. It’s to be supportive of one another.”
Hope Rocks takes place at the Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex on Saturday, Aug. 19 from noon-9 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 20 from noon-5 p.m. For more information, visit: morserocks.com.