Joy LaTorre experienced a childhood that may have lead many others to demonize addiction, make excuses for their own imperfections and perhaps be an overall unhappy person, whether it was warranted on any particular day or not.
Instead, she has striven to be the literal embodiment of her own name, and she spreads that unbridled happiness to strangers who are experiencing the darkest days of their lives through her nonprofit organization, Build the Banner of Love, which provides support to grieving families who have just lost someone to an overdose or addiction-related death.
On Aug. 31, Build the Banner will congregate outside the Rhode Island State House from 6 to 9 p.m. for their first ever Overdose Awareness Day and Remembrance Vigil. The organization’s namesake, the Banner of Love, will be on public display for the first time, showcasing the faces of those who have been lost.
“I believe this will not only allow our loved ones to be remembered, but build a strong sense of community amongst the loved ones that grieve, harbor false guilt, or in some way feel a sense of shame,” reads a release about the event from LaTorre. To learn more about the event, go to www.BuildtheBanner.org/overdose-awareness-day.
LaTorre, once a nurse at the Miriam Hospital and now a nurse practitioner with her master’s degree in nursing from URI, knows about those feelings all too well.
“I just know what it felt like when I was young and go to school and not have lunch money or go to the book fair and not be able to buy books. I remember the shame I felt,” she said. “I see mothers, that love their children so deeply, and then they lose them. Who is someone else to judge their child?”
LaTorre started her nonprofit after seeing how much it meant to grieving mothers to even simply receive some flowers and a show of love and support in the wake of losing a child to addiction. She has since expanded quite significantly, and some of the arrangements that she has provided free of charge to families could go for as much as $2,000 if bought at a florist.
Some of these arrangements include heart and cross-shaped memorials, but LaTorre has also finished four spectacular arrangements that she dubbed “blankets of love,” which include hundreds of flowers inside of a border trim of rich green leaves, adhered to a foam sheet so they can be draped over a coffin.
“When I started to do the flowers, I started to think, ‘Cover them with a blanket of love,’” LaTorre said. “It feels like the world covers them in a blanket of shame – and I was covered like that as a child – so I believe they should be covered in love.”
LaTorre said that she was often mocked while she was a nurse because of the compassion she would show for the addicts that came through the emergency room time and time again.
“I was always called the nurse that ‘liked the junkies.’ I didn’t see them as addicts, I saw them as broken people,” she said. “Everybody covers pain for a reason. I don’t know why. We do it with food, some people do it with exercise, playing video games, sleeping, everybody has a vice...Not everybody wakes up one day and says, ‘I want to be an addict.’ I’ve known lawyers that have died, college kids, Penn State graduates.”
LaTorre said that how a person dies should not matter, as the pain that a death causes is universally felt by that individual’s loved ones.
“It doesn’t matter if your child dies of an overdose, or if your child dies of cancer, or if they get hit by a car. The fact is that you’re putting your child in a box and you are burying them,” she said. “I think people need to have more compassion to understand that... If we loved more and we judged less, the world would be a better place.”
In trying to put her finger on where her caring heart came from, despite having an upbringing that didn’t provide her with much compassion, LaTorre said that she had always just felt a natural need to help people for as long as she can remember. She also said she gained a lot of insight and perspective from Diane Cocozza Martins, a professor of nursing at URI.
According to Joy, a single word, gesture or interaction can have a domino effect on many individuals. Sometimes a single act of love can create a shockwave that is felt by hundreds. Even just one can make a difference.
“Sometimes it just takes one person,” she said.