Photos by Tom Moore
Pat Roza’s Forget Me Not Cupcakes serve as a reminder of a heartbreaking tragedy and national epidemic.
It was in the spring of 2011 when Pat Roza thought of the name for her cupcake business. She had been visiting her son Christopher’s grave, talking with him, as she often did in the four years since he’d passed away from complications due to substance use.
Later, when she got in her car to leave, Roza looked back at the bench preserving Chris’ memory and said, “I love you, and I’ll never forget you.”
That’s it, she thought. Forget me not.
As a child, Chris and his friends would burst into the house after school and scramble for whatever Roza had prepared for them that day — which often included cupcakes. He was a social butterfly who couldn’t resist joking around with family and friends. At 10 years old, he bought his own DJ equipment and started to work at elementary schools and parties. He stood 5’4” — a trait passed down by his mom — but had the bravado to make up for it.
Between his popularity and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the classroom wasn’t an environment suited to Chris’ intelligence. He dropped out of high school as soon as he could, and within a matter of months, earned his GED.
Chris started working at an autobody shop in Beacon. He loved working with his hands, especially on Hondas. So crowded with auto parts was his bedroom, at one point his brother Brian teased, “Chris, you realize that if you build a car in your bedroom, you can’t get it out of the second floor.”
One day at the shop, Chris accidentally fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a severe back injury. He was treated with opioids and developed a dependence on the medication. At the time, the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing (I-STOP) had not yet been implemented, so Chris went “doctor shopping,” bouncing from one practice or pharmacy to another. Often, he was successful. Some doctors, like one endocrinologist, were all too willing to refill his prescription, even if his ailment fell outside their specialty.
When the prescriptions ran out, Chris tried to find heroin on the street. He began to act differently. His boss at the autobody shop let him go, but somehow he managed to get the drugs. Consequences followed, like when a stranger showed up on Roza’s doorstep and threatened to kill his entire family if he didn’t pay up.
Roza and her ex-husband tried everything to help their son. He was in and out of rehabilitation clinics — in-patient, out-patient — but he’d always return to the drugs. During one of his hospitalizations, he brushed off Roza, saying “Mom, stop, I’m not going to die.”
That proved untrue on July 4, 2007, when Chris passed away due to complications from substance use disorder.
“A piece of me went with him that day,” Roza recalls in a tribute video to Chris. She and her ex-husband were racked with guilt, wondering what went wrong in their son’s life and what they could have done differently.
Four years later, Roza began to work through her grief by baking gourmet cupcakes from her home in Milton. With flavors like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, and Oreo, she built a customer base, and in 2013, took home the prize at K104’s Cupcake Wars. Her victory threw the business into overdrive: She has since baked desserts for the Book of Mormon cast party, the Kinky Boots Tony Awards party — even delivered some treats to Marlboro’s own Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, of Jersey Shore fame. Roza purchased a mini school bus so she could take her treats on the road. She painted the name “Forget Me Not Cupcakes,” and a logo of the dessert flanked by angel’s wings — an opportunity to share Christopher’s story with curious customers.
Since starting Forget Me Not Cupcakes, Roza has donated about $10,000 in proceeds to the Council on Addiction Prevention and Education (CAPE) and now serves on the foundation board of the organization. In this role, she helps support programs like The Marathon Project, an after-school, long-distance running program that pairs adult mentors with at-risk youth and culminates in a 26.2-mile race.
In spite of increased awareness recently, the situation has not improved much. According to the most recent annual report, Ulster County had the highest rate of opioid-related deaths in the state, while Greene County experienced the highest rate in heroin-related deaths.
On the opposite side of those statistics are forces of nature like Roza. Since retiring from her full-time job as the activities director at a nursing home, she is no less busy. Aside from her cupcake business and her work at CAPE, she delivers food and coats to the homeless through Hope on a Mission, is trained as an on-call counselor for Hope Not Handcuffs, and even helps addicts in her personal time.
One of her success stories is a young man who lost his brother to substance use disorder. His mother reached out to Roza through a Facebook group for bereaved parents, concerned because he was wandering the streets of Poughkeepsie. It was 10 p.m. when he received Roza’s text, but he answered: I want your help. Four years later, he is sober.
“I think [it’s] what I was meant to do, because when you lose a child, you lose a part of yourself. I needed a way to make a difference,” says Roza, “and that’s the direction I took.”
The Council on Addiction Prevention and Education (C.A.P.E.) is a Dutchess County organization that offers a number of resources and services to those struggling with substance use disorder, such as providing licensed substance use and education counselors in 10 schools. For more information, call 845.765.8301.
If you need immediate help, call toll free 877.485.9700.