ATTLEBORO — Anyone driving past Willett Elementary School in Attleboro Saturday afternoon would have seen people gathered on its grassy field, squinting from the beaming sun as they viewed games of dodge ball and tug-of-war, many of them holding a hotdog or ice cream cone from one of the local food trucks pulled up to the curb.
And although it might have appeared to be a simple celebration of springtime weather, the folks were actually gathered by The Parker Fund, a local non-profit organization based in Attleboro that works to help those suffering from addiction. Everyone was there to celebrate sobriety.
“It’s really just a way for all of us to come together and celebrate what we’ve worked for,” said Dave Silveria, 32, vice president of The Parker Fund. “We wanted a way to give back to the people that have supported us.”
Silveria helped start The Parker Fund back in 2016 after the death of his long-time friend Nathan Parker from addiction. The board is made up of nine members, all Nathan’s close friends or family.
“Nate always loved to bring people together,” said Kyle Frazier, 32, president of The Parker Fund. “This is just the best thing to keep his memory alive.”
The Sobriety Games expand upon a tradition started last year with a dodgeball game held for supporters of the fund, Frazier said.
There are teams of six to 10 people and events include a water balloon toss, tug-of-war, a relay race and a dodgeball game.
Nathan’s mother, Lauren Parker, 50, said she was amazed at the turnout.
“What happened to Nate was a tragedy, and it’s just been hell,” she said. “It has been so hard, but as a mom, to see all this love, is just amazing.”
Nathan’s grandmother agreed.
“To me, it just shows how many faithful friends he had,” she said through teary eyes. “He touched so many people, and to see that they’re all still thinking about him, it’s like he’s here with us.”
Zoe Parker, 23, one of Nathan’s cousins, came all the way from Salem to celebrate with her family.
“It’s awesome to see everyone come together,” Parker said. “We’re a really close family, and Nathan was all about his friends, so I’m really excited to be here.”
Many of Nathan’s friends and family mentioned how the Sobriety Games, being outdoors and getting people moving and competing, perfectly embodied Nathan.
“Getting friends together is what he was best at,” said Sarah Parker, 26, Nathan’s cousin. “But it’s also great to raise awareness, and to let people know that they shouldn’t be embarrassed by their family.”
Parker added that the large public event was a way to show people struggling with addiction that they’re not alone and that there are people like them getting help.
For Kristin Johnston, 30, Nathan’s sister, holding games is a way to remove the stigma from addiction.
“It’s a way to turn a tragedy into something positive,” she said. “You can just stay sad and pissed off or you can try to help people.”
Johnston has been a board member of fund since it started in 2016 and has used the platform to try and help different people recover from the damage of addiction.
“Everyone transcends addiction in different ways,” she said. “And this is a rally for overcoming addiction, just the way Nate would have done it.”
Also in attendance were the people The Parker Fund has helped to overcome addiction, there to celebrate their sobriety and connect with new members.
Brian Marino, a 32-year-old MMA fighter, has been clean for over a year thanks to support from The Parker Fund. He said he still attends support group meetings every week.
“To keep recovery you have to give recovery,” Marino said. “In our group, we have guys who have been clean for one day to guys who have been clean for 26 years.”
Marino called the men’s-only support group “hard nose,” and said it forces men to come to terms with the affects of their addiction. On Saturday, Marino competed in the games as a way to give thanks to the organization.
“It’s a great cause,” he said. “It does a lot to get rid of the stigma that addicts are all trashy people. Anyone can be affected by addiction.”
Evan Leighton, a 36-year-old Attleboro resident, also competing in the games, said the same.
“Substance abuse affects us all, and in a tough way,” he said. “We’re here to do what we can to help.”
The games ran well into the afternoon as old friends lingered in the sunshine, sharing memories.
According to Mike Coogan, 31, of Attleboro, a board member for fund, that’s what the afternoon was all about.
“We do a lot of events where we ask for donations,” he said. “But this was all about thanking our supporters and letting everyone have a good time.”
Coogan said he’d known Nathan since grade school, and events like this keep his memory alive.
“Without question, Nate’s best quality was bringing people together,” Coogan said. “And even now, you look around, and he’s still doing it.”