The battle against substance abuse in New Milford is gaining traction.

Members of the town's Substance Abuse Council are high in expectation an upcoming presentation by former professional basketball player Chris Herren could greatly increase local awareness of the problem.

At one point a college standout at Boston College, Herren played for the Boston Celtics and numerous other professional teams both in the United States and abroad during a career checkered with drug abuse.

His May 19 talk, scheduled at 7 p.m. and open to the public at New Milford High School, will be about his addiction and subsequent recovery.

The council, chaired by two staffers at the New Milford Youth Agency, Stacey Kabasakalian and Laura Cleary, hopes to upgrade local residents' awareness of the drug problem.

They are quite pleased more than $11,000 has been raised from local businesses' and individuals' donations to defray cost of Herren's appearance and other council expenses.

On May 19, Herren will kick off his busy day in town by speaking during two school-day assemblies at the high school before his 7 p.m. presentation to the general public.

The council hopes Herren's message will reach his young audience and also open a communitywide discussion about substance abuse.

A community forum is tentatively planned for early June to give parents and youths an opportunity to respond to Herron's presentation, addressing issues and questions raised by his talk.

"(NMHS Assistant Principal) Marc Balanda has contacted a parent who lost a child to heroin," said New High School health instructor Erica Keane.

Keane is hopeful a letter the parent has penned could be used as an advisory point by the council in the future.

In 2014, three opiate-related deaths occurred in New Milford of young adults aged 19, 22 and 23.

Administrators at Schaghticoke Middle School and New Milford High School are aware substance abuse exists among their student bodies.

Mayor Pat Murphy said the town's government is very supportive of the fight against substance abuse.

Via activities like Community Conversations, health fairs and the student council, she noted, town government works to get the word out about the issue.

"We're involved with the Substance Abuse Council through the police department, the school," the mayor said.

She said the Youth Agency and its staff play a major role in battling drugs among younger residents.

Democratic mayoral candidate David Gronbach said the drug issue is one he constantly experiences in his practice as a lawyer.

"A lot of criminal behavior is driven by addiction," Gronbach said. "I see the effect it has on families when they are struggling with a child dealing with this issue. As a community, we all have to invest in helping these people dealing with substance abuse."

He said more has to be done through education, while youths are "a captive audience" in school.

"We have to make it easier for families to seek services," Gronbach said, "to have parents see that substance abuse transcends social class and home environment. No young person can break an addiction without support."

Cleary remarked the council's Parent Support Group has had low turnout. She is hopeful Herren's talk will help erase some of the stigma about admitting a family member has a substance abuse problem.

"For some people, it is more comfortable to go to a support group outside of their hometown," Cleary said. "We would like to have better attendance at our group but if people are going to Brookfield's program that's good, too."

Mark Mankin, the longtime executive director of the Youth Agency, has been taking the pulse of the fight against substance abuse for years.

"For the past two years, the local council has been dealing with the epidemic in prescription drug and heroin abuse," he reflected. "There has been considerable support from the New Milford community."

"A recent example is the Chris Herren presentation," he added, "that has been funded by numerous local community organizations."

Mankin is pleased the respective chief executives of town government the school district are very much on board.

"Both the mayor and Superintendent of Schools JeanAnn Paddyfote have given their unwavering support to the council's projects," he said. "Can we do more and achieve better numbers? Obviously."

"But we feel the council is on the right track," he said. "Just in the next two months, they will be sponsoring and supporting a health fair at the high school, the Chris Herren presentation and community forum in early June."

And the work won't stop there.

"The council will continue to offer the monthly parent support group for adults," Mankin reminded, "who are concerned about a young person's substance abuse or use."

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352