Gord Portman’s tearful dedication of a memorial sitting area at Marina Way Park was his “dream come true.” Just over a year ago, Portman, who used to frequent the area during his struggles with opioids, presented his idea to Coun. James Miller in 2022 and, from there, to Penticton city council.
He was given a unanimous go-ahead by elected officials who tasked him with the job of fundraising for half the money. It took just two weeks for Portman to come up with $10,000 thanks to the many people who donated to his cause. An interview with CBC led to a childhood friend of Portman’s, Tim (who wishes to remain anonymous) hearing the clip and kickstarting the financial campaign.
Contributions of $5 to $250 began pouring in at a rapid pace. The campaign was grassroots. GoFundMe was never used. Through it all, Portman never forgot his own journey. “I used to sleep on a rock over there, just around the corner,” said Portman, motioning to an area near the Okanagan Lake shoreline. “This is the place I used to come and mourn the friends that I’ve lost and hide from my family and hide from the community.”
“The bench was my dream of having a place where people could sit and mourn a loved one that they’ve lost.” In addition to Thursday’s ceremony, afterwards a number of local agencies set up at Gyro Park to offer information and initiatives to combat the stigma and effects of the toxic drug crisis. The events coincided with this year’s International Overdose Awareness Day.
Portman noted during the past year the number of friends he lost to overdose rose from 104 to 127. Sadly, included in the overall number was Brad, someone he grew up with. “I started this bench project because I lost my best friend Brad,” said Portman through his tears. “Brad was eight months clean and sober and he relapsed in the Walmart bathroom and he died. He was No. 1 on wait list for a long time, but we didn’t have a bed (at Discovery House).”
Portman described the bench as a “piece of art” and a fitting tribute to the friend he lost. “The interlocking (bench) design represents the fabric of our community and the empty space and in the middle and separate seating symbolizes the isolation and emptiness of those struggling with addiction,” he explained. “It’s a sad day that we had to be here today, but I’m so happy the City of Penticton came together to remember all the people who have lost the fight, but will never be forgotten.”
His mom Pam attended the ceremony and could not have been more proud of her son. “This is a monument, not a bench. This is a dream come true and an awareness; an awareness we’ve never had in Penticton,” she said. “This means so much more to Gord. It’s not just a bench, it’s to make people aware of what’s going on.”
Jill Martens, a member of the Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) whose son Daniel died in 2016 from an overdose a week before his 24th birthday admitted she was skeptical about Portman being successful in raising the money. “There is so much stigma and ignorance around substance use that it (fundraising) was an impossible dream to fulfill, but Gord you proved me wrong,” said Martens, who brought a picture of her son. “So Gord, you had a vision and followed your heart and this is the perfect example of the power of positive thinking, compassion for others and reverence for life. “It is my hope that people will sit here and love and honour and remember their loved ones and perhaps meet other people and share their grief and thus lighten each other’s load.” She added the toxic drug crisis has grown so much in the seven years since she joined MSTH its numbers have risen from 35 to over 1,500 in B.C. alone. And those numbers have only served to strengthen her resolve about the work of the organization. “Our children are dead, they’re gone. We are here to help save other parents and families from facing the brutal reality that we get up and face every single morning,” she said. “So Gord, on behalf of Moms Stop the Harm, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are an inspiration to all of us.” MSTH member Joyce Bunge, whose son Joseph Bauman died of an overdose four years ago, believes the memorial is much needed. “It’s a connection, some place that they (users) know is theirs and the parents and friends who would like to see solutions,” she said. “There are so many places they’re turned away, ‘Get out of here, leave.’ “This is for them. All they’re looking for is some place they can be seen and not judged.” Bunge believes the “victim blaming” by government and the general public has to stop in order to end the increasing number of “preventable” deaths. “Everyone has a basic right to life even those who self medicate.” See additional photos from the bench dedication online at: pentictonherald.ca
Mark Brett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Penticton Herald