Dozens of Santa Clarita Valley Residents Gather to Mourn Local Teens and Young Adults Who Died of Drug Overdoses
A standing-room-only audience attended the second annual Action Drug Overdose Awareness Day Candlelight Vigil at the Action Family Zone in Santa Clarita Friday night.
More than 110 Santa Clarita Valley residents gathered for two hours to remember loved ones and friends who have died of drug overdoses or alcohol poisoning in the past decade.
The Action Family Foundation, the nonprofit wing of the Santa Clarita-based Action Family Counseling drug and alcohol treatment and recovery centers, hosted the vigil, a sober, somber affair.
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Action Candlelight Vigil had Three-Fold Purpose
The candlelight vigil’s purpose was three-fold, said Bob Sharits, Action program director and the evening’s co-emcee, with Action founder/CEO Cary Quashen, just before it started.
“It’s to memorialize those who have lost their lives, and to support the loved ones left behind,” Sharits said. “But the big picture is for everyone to leave here tonight carrying the message that drugs kill. We want to save some lives tonight.”
Vigil is Santa Clarita’s Observation of International Drug Overdose Awareness Day
Action’s Candlelight Vigil was a local observation of International Drug Overdose Awareness Day, established in Australia in 2001 and observed worldwide on Aug. 31. Action held its vigil Friday because that day falls on Labor Day weekend in the United States.
“We’re doing better here this year, with fewer drug overdoses, but in the 12 years since International Drug Overdose Day started, we’ve had an average of 10 drug-related overdoses per year in the Santa Clarita Valley,” Sharits said. “So we have 120 candles we will light in memory of loved ones who died of drug overdoses, and in support of the grieving family and friends left behind.”
In the first half of 2013, there were only two fatal overdoses confirmed by authorities at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, both from prescription pills. Another three deaths are suspected drug overdoses, but toxicology results are not yet available. Even at five so far this year, the number of overdose deaths is fewer than the 14 recorded in 2012.
The Action candlelight vigil also precedes the third annual symposium at the Santa Clarita Activities Center Wednesday, Aug. 28, hosted by the City of Santa Clarita in cooperation with the Hart school district, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, and Action.
Prelude to the Vigil: Interview with Krissy McAfee, Parent
Action’s candlelight vigil was the latest in a series of events and gatherings at the Action Family Zone designed to boost awareness of hard-drug abuse among teens and young people in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Among the audience converging on the Zone’s big meeting room were parents of children who died of overdoses, other family members and friends who grieve loved ones’ deaths, and members of the community who wanted to show their support.
Some were there to mourn the death by overdose of someone close, and share their story with others as a cautionary tale. They included Krissy McAfee, whose son Trae died of a heroin overdose in 2010. The Canyon High honors graduate was 24 years old.
McAfee subsequently made an emotional appeal in front of the Santa Clarita City Council, that the city face the local heroin problem and do something about it.
Today, she speaks at meetings and events such as the Action vigil, as her way of honoring her son’s memory by trying to steer others clear of drugs and addiction.
Bob Sharits and Cary Quashen of Action address the audience at the candlelight vigil.
“I’m doing really well,” McAfee said before the vigil began, when asked how she was coping with the grief of losing a child, three years down the line.
“I think I still have days where I will hear a song or something on the radio, and all of a sudden I just start crying, I can’t help it,” she said. “Everything’s been fine up until that point. You have the main holidays, too, that are really rough. For me, Mother’s Day, Trey’s birthday, Christmas – the main ones – are still really hard. And there’s just days you really miss them.
“But I have to go on, and I have to go on for my other kids, and it helps me to help other people,” McAfee said. “Helping other addicts really makes me feel good. When I see their progress and that they’re winning – my son didn’t win at this, but there are people out there who are winning, and that helps me a lot.”
Prelude to the Vigil: Interview with Bob Haas, Uncle
Bob and Nancy Haas, a middle-aged couple original from Maryland and now Santa Clarita residents, attended the Action vigil in memory of two nephews. One died of a heroin overdose 12 years ago and the other of alcohol and drugs last year.
“My brother and sister-in-law lost two sons, and parents shouldn’t outlive their kids, especially when the cause is so reachable and so curable,” Bob Haas said. “The heroin epidemic is not just a Santa Clarita thing. It’s a nationwide issue. That tied with alcoholism at an early age.
“As far as I’m concerned, the old adage we all heard growing up from the ‘60s that, yeah, marijuana is a stepping stone and it’s a gateway drug – it’s really true,” he said. “We’ve got real proof there. It’s a behavioral issue.”
Haas said he was there with a message for other parents: “It’s not just the kids who have the problem – it’s a family problem. It’s an issue that’s not by location – you can’t just remove the child or remove the adult from an environment. It’s changing the lifestyle, it’s changing the way they think, it’s changing the way they relate to society. It’s everything.”
Prelude to the Vigil: Interview with Shane Davis, Recovering Opiate Addict
Many among the audience were recovering addicts, like 19-year-old San Fernando Valley native Shane Davis, who has lived in Santa Clarita a few years.
“(Addiction) is a serious disease,” he said. “It kills people takes families apart every day. I’ve seen it happen – it’s happened to me. People need to really look at it and internalize it and just know it’s not a joke.”
Photos of Santa Clarita teens and young adults who died of drug overdoses were displayed at the vigil.
Davis said he had his first drink of alcohol when he was 7 years old. By 13, he was drinking and smoking marijuana daily.
“I loved it. I wanted to get out of (my)self,” he said. “Inside, I had a lot of feelings I couldn’t get out otherwise.”
Eventually he started partying a lot, he said. “I lost my little music career I had, and started drinking every day about 10 in the morning. Then I got into the opiate scene. You can smoke weed, you can drink alcohol – it’s all bad – but once you start doing opiates, it’s not partying anymore. You’re really by yourself. It gets really lonely.”
Davis has been in and out of Action rehab programs since he was 15. “I had two years of sobriety, and then I didn’t think I had a problem anymore, so now I’m at 28 days,” he said.
Why the relapses? “I know how to get sober really well. I know how to work a program,” Davis said. “But I always get in this (mindset) where I don’t think it’s for me anymore, even though I’ve tested it time and time again. I’ve always done the same thing and always expected different results, and always got the same results but 10 times worse. This time, I would’ve been one of the people they’re remembering (tonight), because I almost didn’t make it back. I almost died 29 days ago.”
Davis said he always got tools he could use during his stints in rehab, but because he didn’t use them after he got out, he relapsed.
“I know how it is to be sober, I know how amazing it can be,” he said. “But when you get out, whether you’re an impatient or an outpatient, you’ve got to take it with you. Whatever you’ve learned, you can’t just discontinue it and forget about it, because then you’re just going to end up in and out, in and out. And maybe you just won’t even come back – which is what tonight’s all about.”
Vigil Like a Public AA Meeting
Once the vigil got started, the evening resembled an Alcoholics Anonymous or NarcoNon meeting, where recovering alcoholics and/or drug addicts share their stories and the group supports their efforts to get clean and stay sober. About the only difference was the vigil was a public meeting.
More than 110 people attended the second annual Action Drug Overdose Awareness Day candlelight vigil.
Sharits started the evening off by calling for a moment of silence for the dead.
He introduced McAfee as the evening’s first speaker, crediting her with sparking the concerted, community-wide effort three years ago to start dealing with the hard-drug abuse and related deaths among young people in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Krissy McAfee’s Son Trae
McAfee sat in a chair in front of the crowd and tearfully recounted her son Trae’s battle with addiction, his apparent recovery, and sudden relapse and overdose after re-connecting with addicted friends.
She recounted how his drug-using friends dropped him off at home around 5.a.m on March 23, 2010. They told her he was just very drunk, repeatedly assuring her he had not been using heroin. She left him in the driveway hoping he would sober up while she went back inside her house to get ready for work. By the time she walked out to the driveway again, Trey was still lying there.
“He had foam coming out of his mouth and his nose, and I just knew what it was,” said McAfee, pictured at right.
She tearfully recalled running to him and searching his body for a pulse, screaming his name, lying across his body, begging him to wake up.
McAfee’s other son Taylor and her now-ex-husband came outside and called 911. Deputies and paramedics arrived, sirens blaring. They discovered Trae had four fresh needle marks, she said. She was in shock as paramedics tried for 20-25 minutes to resuscitate him, while she begged him to wake up. But it was too late.
“After they pronounced him dead, one of the (deputies) brought me all the stuff that was in Trae’s pockets, and handed it to me and said he was sorry,” McAfee said, dabbing tears with a tissue.
More Tributes to Loved Ones who Died by Drug Overdose
Other speakers at the Action Overdose Awareness Day Candlelight Vigil included a middle-aged woman who introduced herself a la AA meetings just by her first name, Kelly. She said she was also in recovery (but did not specify her addiction).
Kelly briefly told the audience about her two sons, one of whom developed an opioid-pill habit and the other used heroin for six months before he died.
“He didn’t die of an overdose,” she said. “He decided to take his own life. I found him hanging from a tree in our back yard.”
Kelly said both her boys had been good kids, played baseball.
“Heroin will take anyone down,” she said. “Now I’m in this group of parents who’ve lost their kids to drugs.”
Sharits, sober for eight years, hung up a picture of Carlie Renee Coulter, whose heroin overdose at age 22 last year shocked family, friends, classmates and the Santa Clarita Valley community as a whole.
He went on to speak a few minutes each about a few friends of his who had overdosed – Scott (jimson weed), Brooke (alcohol) and Tommy (cocaine plus a bad heart). He told the audience why each of his friends was special, and why their deaths were such a waste.
Mike, 54, a firefighter for 10 years, spoke next. He’s an alcoholic and drug addict, in rehab for the second time, he said.
“You are the next generation,” Mike said, addressing the teens and young adults in the room. “Take it from the old guy – you need to look in the mirror and be honest with yourself.”
Kim spoke of her two sons’ heroin addiction. One died of an overdose in November 2010. After he died, she said, “The first thing that I thought about, especially because of heroin, was, ‘How could this be happening to my kid, and our family?’ So I did a little one-on-one talking with kids, I wanted to go directly to the source; I wanted to hear what was happening out there.”
She said she spoke to young people from high school age and others as old as their mid-20s.
“Every time I would ask them for a number, a percentage of the kids around you who have either tried something, or are actually doing something…all the numbers that came back were 90 percent,” she said. “That means, and my message here to you guys, is that (local drug addiction) goes much deeper than we even realize, because we have that many kids doing drugs. And adults, too.”
Next, Mindy Williams (pictured at left), a recovering heroin and opioid prescription pill addict, told of developing an addiction even as she was working for at the LAPD training academy in Elysian Park.
Her best friend and drug-taking partner in crime died of an overdose and it devastated her. But even the shock of his death did not move her to stop.
After using drugs another two and a half years, Williams sought help from Action and got sober. Clean for more than a year and a half, she is now a full-time Action counselor.
A middle-aged man took the microphone without identifying himself, but said he was an alcoholic and drug addict who started drinking 40 years ago, after his father died. “I drank 40 years in denial,” he said. “I’ve been in treatment 13 days now, and I’m so glad to be in rehab…I’m working hard to regain what I lost.”
Another middle-aged man, who said his name was “Anonymous,” told how he felt responsible for one of his cousins’ drug overdose. The cousin’s wife was away on business and the two men went on a binge. “One night I went to take him more drugs, but he had died,” Anonymous said. “Too many people are dying. Eight of my cousins are still using.”
A young woman named Allison began dabbling with marijuana and other drugs at age 13, and by 20 was a heroin and methamphetamine addict.
“Heroin grabbed me by the soul and did not let go,” she said.
She was living at home with her parents, but after a failed rehab attempt and more years of surreptitious addiction, her parents finally delivered an ultimatum: Get help or get out. She went through Action’s rehab program earlier this summer, but relapsed after 59 days and is back in rehab now.
“I’m just glad that I can sit here right now, because there were definitely times my parents wanted me to plan my own funeral, because they didn’t want to have to do it,” she said. The audience applauded their support.
Another young woman, Caitlin, who said she’s on her sixth attempt at rehab, talked of her losing her best friend. The two of them partied, took drugs like Xanax, a powerful painkiller. Caitlin’s friend eventually killed herself, and the girl’s parents blamed Caitlin and her drug-addicted friends.
“The biggest thing I learned from it is, that could really, really be me,” she said. “It got close enough to take my best friend. It was a big eye-opener for me.”
Cary Quashen’s Profane but Powerful Closing Remarks
After about two hours of speakers, Quashen – sober for 34 years now – sat in front of the audience for a closing segment.
He pulled out his cell phone and played back a voicemail message from a frantic middle-aged woman who was calling him for help, because she was hopelessly addicted and didn’t know what else to do.
Quashen told the story of another woman who was into weed and speed, and found out she was pregnant. She reached out to Action for help. “We had to tell her that her baby was dead,” Quashen said. “Then she labored 30 hours to deliver a dead baby.”
He let that sink into the room’s collective consciousness a moment, and then made some pointed closing remarks.
Apologizing in advance to anyone who might be offended, he said, “F**k alcohol and drugs!”
He repeated the phrase four times, each time more loudly, and with more intensity.
“Did you get that? Do you hear me?”
He definitely had the audience’s attention.
Quashen repeated the mantra once more. “Look what they do. Nothing is worth this. Alcohol and drugs make good people do horrible things. They turn great dreams into nightmares.”
Many heads in the room nodded in affirmation.
“Let me tell you a secret,” he said. “I have been clean 34 years, and I didn’t get clean because life was great. You know how you forgive yourself? You want to feel better? There’s one way that’s so easy – stop doing the stuff that make you feel bad about yourself. Do things that make you feel good. Hug your parents at night versus making them wonder where the hell you are.”
Quashen surveyed the roomful of people, seated and standing.
“All the kids in this room, and all the people we lost – they were all good kids, man,” he said. “They just made bad choices. Make better choices. We don’t want to bury any more kids here in Santa Clarita, or anywhere else.”
Quashen called for a round of applause for everyone who got up the courage to publicly share his or her stories, for the benefit of others. Then Sharits organized the candlelight procession.
The Candlelight Vigil: 120 Candles Lit, Then Extinguished
As attendees each picked up one of the 120 lit candles from a table at the back of the room, Sharits reminded the single-file procession to extinguish the candles as soon as they walked outdoors.
“That represents just how fast these people’s lives were extinguished,” he said.
The vigil closed as the attendees each picked up a lit candle representing the life of someone who died of an overdose, silently walked out of the room and doused their candle in a trash can on the sidewalk in front of The Zone.
The dozens of people from all walks of life, all touched in some way by the deaths of loved ones by drug overdose, had found some comfort there.
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Source: Santa Clarita News