Hands Across the Bridge participants celebrate support, sense of community

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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Family. Friends. Self-respect.

Those are just a few of the things that Sara Conner gained during her recovery from drug addiction.

“I just put an offer on a house, and that’s huge for someone like me,” she said. “My kids never have to see me use, ever.”

Conner and thousands of others gathered at Esther Short Park on Monday for the Hands Across the Bridge event. In its 16th year, the event celebrates those in recovery, honors those who help make it happen and works to change the stigma associated with addiction.

“It’s an opportunity to share that recovery is real and recovery works,” said Tom Breitenbauch, board chair for the event.

The most moving part of the day for Breitenbauch is when the droves of participants walk from the park to the Interstate 5 Bridge, where they meet those in recovery from Oregon, hold hands and say the Serenity Prayer.

“It’s very powerful to have that many people praying at the same time,” he said.

But before that moment occurred, Wendie Oxford, 35, of Vancouver beamed as she stood in front of the crowd holding a large photo in her hands — her own mugshot. In the photo is an 18-year-old Oxford who has a scowl on her face and a scar on her forehead, an injury from getting into a fight with the cops who arrested her.

Since then, Oxford has gone to jail 27 times and done six stints in prison. She tried treatment, but it didn’t stick until 2009 when she began to look at all the things she stood to lose, namely her family.

“This time, I fully surrendered,” she said. “I said, ‘God, I need something different’ … God just kicked in and did work.”

Oxford and her husband are now advocates for recovery, overseeing Faces of Hope, an outreach effort of Xchange Recovery.

“It’s all about life restoration and breaking the stigma that tweakers are bad people,” Oxford said. “We’re just people that made bad choices in our lives … there’s more to our lives than just our drug habit.”

Monday kicks off national recovery month and is meant to be good, clean fun with the Oxfest music festival happening throughout the day and the lights of hope taking place in the evening.

But the day’s agenda also pauses to honor the lives lost to addiction.

Trudi Ringering released a dove in honor of her son Kyle Ringering, who was in recovery when he died on Aug. 31, 2016, from an accidental overdose.

“It wasn’t sad, it was a good thing,” she said of releasing the dove. “It was representative to me of flying and freedom — all the things he is experiencing now.”

Trudi Ringering said that though the event is so close to the anniversary of her son’s death, it was still a happy day. It let her see more of the recovery side of her son’s life.

“I’m just beginning to immerse myself in it, and I’m pretty blown away by the support and the community itself,” she said. “It’s pretty beautiful.”