Communities come together to mourn those lost to drug addiction on National Day of Remembrance
Louise Ballard of Brackenridge still struggles to understand the opioid epidemic after losing her grandson to an overdose in April.
“This has been an eye-opener for me,” Ballard said. “I'm praying for this epidemic in this valley.”
Ballard's grandson, Qwinn Ballard, was just 24 when he died. She said she had never experienced losing someone to a drug problem before him but knows now that addiction can affect anyone.
Ballard was one of many to share their experience with addiction to a packed room Sunday during a remembrance ceremony held by Lost Dreams Awakening, a nonprofit addiction counseling center and support group in New Kensington.
The ceremony was held as part of the National Day of Remembrance, a yearly event that brings communities together to mourn the loss of loved ones from drug overdoses. In 2015, there were more than 3,300 drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
“These aren't just statistics,” said Laurie Johnson-Wade, co-founder of Lost Dreams Awakening. “They were human beings. That's why we do things like this.”
Johnson-Wade encouraged participants to say the names of the people they were talking about so the individuals don't get lost in the numbers. Candles were lit and photos of those lost were displayed during the ceremony.
“I think there's power in that,” she said. “We need the depth of that emotion.”
Johnson-Wade's husband VonZell Wade, also a co-founder, talked about the importance of families who have dealt with addiction coming together to support each other.
“I know it's been tough for some of you to even get out here today,” Wade said. “It's so important for people to be able to connect — sometimes we just need to let people love on us.”
New Kensington resident Linda Ford, 57, was celebrating 90 days drug-free Sunday. She volunteers at Lost Dreams Awakening, where she helps guide others to the help they need.
“We can do this one day at a time,” she said.
New Kensington resident Jessica Helman, 32, is a recovering addict and said she came to the ceremony to be the voice of addicts who weren't able to make it as far as she has.
“There's help and it's in numbers,” she said. “There's no hiding in the dark anymore.”
Helman said she never wants to put her son in the position of so many people who spoke.
“It makes me realize why I never want to do it again,” she said. “I don't want my son to bury me.”
Gloria and Kevin Hapke lost their son Chris to addiction in August at 22 years old, and they are still trying to navigate life after loss.
“We're still trying to get our arms around things,” said Kevin, of Hampton Township. “It's just really tough to deal with this and realize you aren't alone.”
Kevin said his son had struggled for years with addiction and was in and out of rehab and other programs, but in the end they weren't enough.
“The long-term support just isn't there,” he said. “It's a multifaceted thing.”
Harrison resident Jeannie Sundo spoke of losing her son Kyle to an overdose in April just before his 22nd birthday.
“Every day when I wake up there isn't a day where I don't miss my son,” she said.
She and her husband Dan are active with Lost Dreams Awakening and have found some comfort there following Kyle's death.
“We love coming here,” she said. “This is our second home.”
Lost Dreams Awakening holds family support meetings at 6 p.m. Thursdays at its office in New Kensington.
Johnson-Wade encouraged everyone at the ceremony to attend a meeting to continue their healing and recovery.
“Everybody heals at a different pace,” Johnson-Wade said. “The best way to heal is to help another.”
Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.