Saugerties festival of hope spreads to other states

Amid fears of a viral pandemic, Saugertiesians can take solace and pride in the spread of something more wholesome: the Hope Rocks festival, perhaps the only advocacy event that addresses both addiction and mental health awareness, has tested positive in the hearts and minds of event planners in Tennessee and Florida.

“The nation is watching us. We have shaken the bushes and attracted the attention of communities near and far,” said Joe Defino, the Grant D. Morse Elementary School teacher who devised the first Hope Rocks in 2017 and has since overseen its growth. “[I have been] invited to speak to numerous other communities and municipalities about Hope Rocks.”

Lyle Fried, the former CEO of the Shores Treatment and Recovery Center and a prominent recovery advocate in the state of Florida, was thoroughly impressed with the first Hope Rocks festival in 2017; after serving on a panel informing police in Woodstock and Cooperstown in their efforts to create diversion programs, he was repeatedly directed to the event.

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“What I thought was nice was the immediate buy-in from the community, the way that Joe was able to coalesce all aspects of the community, people from all walks of life and kinds of businesses,” he said. “I’d love to see it happen in more places. Whatever I can do to help Joe realize that I’m happy to help.”

Fried orchestrated a similar event in Miami combining music with addiction awareness and resources that focused on musicians and their family members captured by addiction, called “Rockers in Recovery,” for a number of years; after its final iteration in 2019, Fried was ready for another music-oriented festival. Fried said that while Defino had posited a date in March or April of this year, he generally likes “a good year of planning.” Currently, Fried is seeking out a venue, scoping out treatment centers and campgrounds that could be used as potential festival sites — he said that he has viewed venues “from the Keys up.”

Defino said that the concept of the Hope Rocks festival was an instance of “inspiration in desperation.”

“I have had too many former students die due to addiction or hopelessness. This is extremely unsettling as I entered the teaching profession to help build futures rather than to have these beautiful kids never getting to see their potential,” he said Friday. “Just today, I was looking at one issue of a school newspaper we created and four individuals who were fifth- or sixth-graders at the time are no longer with us. It was a staggering reminder that we have so much work to do.”

Steve Wildsmith, a columnist focusing on the topic of addiction in The Daily Times, which is centered in Maryville, Tenn., and who creates content for the Cornerstone of Recovery treatment center in Louisville, has also expressed interest in orchestrating a Hope Rocks festival in his state. Mike Farris, 2015 Grammy winner and ardent partner of the Hope Rocks cause, also pushed for an iteration of the festival there.

Defino said that he has advised officials in Cold Spring, Rensselaer County and Ellenville.

“When we first sat down and talked about this idea, we said that success would be when other communities want to copy it. That is awesome, that is exciting. To be honest, it has grown faster and in ways that I could have never imagined, and we do get contacted frequently by community leaders and parents around the nation as to how they could bring Hope Rocks to their location,” he said. “On one hand it’s awesome, on the other hand we really feel helpless because there are so many people that need help. It’s a huge problem, so in many ways we feel really insignificant. The growth has been extraordinary.”

The hardest part, Defino said, is getting started: “I remind these groups, ‘Start, don’t worry about how to get there. Take the first step, start, and you’ll be surprised about how well things come together. Every community has resources, and it’s finding and tapping into those resources that will make whatever that community’s vision for Hope Rocks come true.”