Slowly she read, reciting name after name, under the picnic shelter on a warm afternoon, sunlight occasionally peeking out from behind clouds.
All around, dozens of people watched and listened, many holding candles, some emotional, others exchanging whispers or knowing glances.
And still she read, pausing for a second or two after each name.
Wendy Odum called name after name, fighting emotion at times, eventually reading the names of 115 different people, mostly from Surry County, some from Stokes County. And every one of the people — including Odum’s daughter — had passed away, claimed by drug overdoses.
The solemn ceremony was held at Riverside Park in Mount Airy on Monday, known as Black Balloon Day. Every year, March 6 is set aside to remember and honor those who have been lost to the drug epidemic gripping America. This year, Odum and The Birches Foundation decided to hold a public gathering in Mount Airy, where participants held black balloons and candles, some even sharing their own stories of loss with those assembled.
That was the case with Odum, who said she lost her daughter, Jessica Stanley, on Aug. 23, 2018.
She said her daughter took a “pressed pill” that day, one that was made to look just like medication one might purchase from a pharmacy. Odum said she doesn’t know if Stanley thought she was taking an opioid pill without realizing it was laced with fentanyl, or if she know fentanyl was inside but didn’t realize how much. All she does know is that her daughter took the pill, and it killed her. Stanley’s use of pills, her mom said, was part of an opioid addiction which started with legal use of needed prescription pills.
That loss, she said, moved her to change careers and devote herself to working in the world of drug abuse prevention and care of those already suffering from drug abuse. By the spring of 2019, The Birches Foundation was born, with Odum serving as executive director.
Odum described the organization as one that focuses on harm reduction.
“We primarily work directly with people affected by substance abuse disorder and the opioid epidemic,” she said. That means supplying drug users with Narcan, the brand name of a drug called Naloxone. The drug is used widely now by those in the field of EMS and law enforcement — a single dose can rapidly arrest and even reverse the effects of opioid drug overdoses, sometimes the difference between life and death.
The organization also supplies “medical-grade” supplies to those suffering from substance abuse disorder, to help cut down on the potential spread of disease and sickness from the drug use.
“Harm reduction is a hard thing for a lot of people to wrap their heads around,” she said. “It really is an effort to minimize sickness and death in a population who are at risk for both.” She said people sometimes think such efforts are “supporting or enabling drug use, (but) that’s not it at all…we don’t promote drug use. None of us like drug use. I hate it. I hate drugs, but I love people….Our focus has been to prevent death in people who are using substances.”
She said what others in her field have repeated often in recent years as the opioid epidemic has ravaged the county, the region, and across the United States — that solving the nation’s growing drug use problem is about meeting people at different points in their lives. In some cases, drug prevention efforts do the job, keeping individuals from getting started down the path of illegal drug use. In others, it is about treatment and getting them off drugs. At the other end of the spectrum, she said, it is about saving a drug user’s life, keeping them from additional harm, while hopefully getting them into a program that can give long-term treatment to get off of drug dependency, or as she said, “Trying to push people back toward help.”
For those needing harm-reduction services, Odum said change comes slowly. First, she explained that many drug users simply don’t trust her agency, believing that perhaps they are working with or part of law enforcement.
“Some question whether we’re the police.” She said many of those who need her agency’s help already feel stigmatized by society, and they find it difficult to believe someone is reaching out to help them without any moral judgment about their drug use.
But that’s what the Birches Foundation does, she said, in both Surry and Stokes counties. Of the 115 names she read Monday, Odum said probably 90% of them were from those two counties, and about 85% of them had died within the past three years. The actual numbers show the loss is even more dire.
“I’d estimate there have been at least 200 deaths,” in those three years, she said. But, some families of those lost opted not to participate, asking that their loved-ones’ name not be read aloud. Odum said those were personal decisions, made by families often still trying to come to grips with their loss, and she supports however they decide to grieve.
While her agency focuses on harm reduction, she said Birches works closely with other agencies, helping to guide those it serves into contact with people and organizations who can help them ease back toward long-term help and, hopefully, eventually getting off the drug use.
“We are just one spoke in the wheel of outreach and support,” she said. “We serve Surry and Stokes County. There’s a lot of people in our area with needs, and we do the harm reduction piece. We help people with referrals to treatment, we have great relationships with other agencies. We really work to build that. It’s so important for the people that we serve.”
It’s that service, Odum said, that she hopes will make lists like those read Monday much shorter in future gatherings — and hopefully make those lists go away altogether.
For more information on The Birches Foundation visit the group’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/birchesfoundation/
For more information about the Surry County Office of Substance Abuse Recover, visit https://www.surrycountycares.com/
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