The painful memories came back when Paulette Phillipe heard two years ago about a family that had lost a loved one to a drug overdose and was struggling to pay for funeral expenses.
Phillipe said she relived the grief she felt when her 15-year-old grandson Gabriel Phillipe, also the victim of an overdose, died years earlier. She remembered the dread that came when she realized the next step was arranging a memorial service — and that her family might not have the resources to pay for it.
Those memories spurred the Mattituck grandmother and several friends to start Gabriel’s Giving Tree, an organization that helps families in need to pay for funeral and burial services after a loved one dies from an overdose. The two-year-old organization honors her grandson, Gabriel, who died in 2010 of an overdose. It has so far provided grants to about a dozen families — each worth $3,995 — since it was founded, board officials said.
Gabriel’s Giving Tree gets its funding from donations and its annual fundraiser, scheduled this year for Aug. 21 at the East Wind Long Island resort in Wading River. Gabriel’s Giving Tree is not a registered charity but instead accepts donations through the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the Westbury organization that provides treatment and support to those struggling with substance abuse. All donations marked for Gabriel’s Giving Tree are kept in a separate fund and are used to help families with funeral assistance.
Many families grieving the loss of overdose victims need financial help because they have emptied bank accounts and exhausted resources paying for treatment programs they hoped would help their children or other loved ones, Paulette Phillipe told Newsday.
“Parents don’t want to give up,” Phillipe said. “So they get drained. They mortgage their homes, they mortgage whatever they can until they just don’t have any money left.”
Gabriel’s Giving Tree board member Claudia Ragni of Smithtown, who owns the Kenneth Peters Centers for Recovery in Syosset and Hauppauge, said she was surprised when her friend Phillipe suggested creating a charity to help families bury loved ones who had died from overdoses.
Paulette Phillippe, founder of Gabriel’s Giving Tree, shows a photo of her grandson Gabriel Phillippe, who died at age 15 of a drug overdose. Credit: Newsday/Steve Post
“I’ve worked in the field for 40 years and it never dawned on me that there are people on Long Island who lose a child or a loved one to an accidental overdose and they don’t have the resources to even cremate them,” Ragni said.
Fatal overdoses were just starting to spike on Long Island after years of decline when Phillipe and several friends founded Gabriel’s Giving Tree in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Drug and alcohol abuse surged along with death, disease, school lockdowns, job losses and grief, public health experts said, as stressed and isolated people across Long Island sought to ease the emotional and physical pain, experts have said.
“We are not rich and we did not have the money to bury our son,” said Patricia Gaffney, whose family received a grant from Gabriel’s Giving Tree after her son, Joe Gaffney of Selden, died of an overdose in August. “They helped us. They gave us help, they lifted us up.”
Phillipe’s longtime friend Anthony Rizzuto, the director of provider services at Seafield Center, a Westhampton Beach drug treatment facility, said Gabriel’s Giving Tree exemplifies how those who have lost loved ones to overdoses are banding together to battle the opioid epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives on Long Island since the late 1990s.
“Paulette is just a remarkable woman and the loss of her grandson caused her to say, ‘Hell no,’ ” said Rizzuto, the founder of Families in Support of Treatment, which aids people with loved ones struggling with addiction and lobbies the state and local governments for rehabilitation and other services.
Funerals, coffins and burial plots can cost at least $10,000 to $15,000, and the grants provided by Gabriel’s Giving Tree only cover a portion of the expenses. Several Long Island funeral homes, including Fives Funeral Homes in Smithtown and Patchogue, work with the charity to help families struggling to pay for burial costs stay within their budget.
Co-owner Shawn Fives said the emotional and economic impact on families can be devastating. “It is heartbreaking. It really is a horrible crisis.”
Phillipe and others behind Gabriel’s Giving Tree have created a Tree Memorial and Serenity Garden at the Scully Estate in Islip. It includes a large boulder surrounded by white pines — a Prayer Tree for the Struggling, a Family Tree of Healing, an Angel Tree of Remembrance, a Unity Tree of Hope, a Celebration of Recovery Tree — that reflect different stages families battling addiction experience.
Phillipe said the site is a place of meditation and peace, designed to bring grieving families together. “Nature is so healing,” she said.
Michael O’Keeffe covers Suffolk County police and other Long Island law-enforcement agencies. He is an award-winning journalist and the co-author of two books, “The Card” and “American Icon.”