TAMPA — Jaime Phillips has spent every summer skipping rocks and wading in creeks with his family in Kentucky. One year, he and his brother, Spencer Foster, made up a funny dance to a pop song for their grandmother, capturing the whole thing on video.
That was before Spencer died from a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol in 2007.
"My mom has the video," said Jaime, 15. "But she hasn't been able to watch it since then."
Michele Phillips, Jaime and Spencer's mother, wanted their family's tragedy to mean something to the community. So she and local volunteers Jennifer Shin and Gerri Marsocci have worked for more than a year to start a Hillsborough chapter of Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education (NOPE), an advocacy group based in West Palm Beach.
The new chapter, with Phillips as program coordinator, officially began with a presentation at Wharton High School in New Tampa on Sept. 18.
The Hillsborough County Commission is providing $50,000 over three years to get the chapter off the ground, and the Tampa Police Department is providing $1,250. The funding will provide NOPE training for school resource officers and antidrug programs in schools.
"We were losing and continue to lose people on a daily basis from this addiction and this disease," commissioner Kevin Beckner said during the celebration for the new chapter last week at the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office in Tampa.
Two to five deaths per week in Hillsborough County are attributed to prescription drug abuse, Phillips said. Nationally, 2,500 teens per day try prescription drugs to get high for the first time, and 60 percent do so before the age of 15, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Sankar Montoute. "This is a national epidemic," Montoute said.
Spencer was 14 when he died in June 2007, while visiting his father in the Westchase neighborhood for the summer. And his family still doesn't have all the details. He was found by himself, and it's not clear if any of his friends were with him.
"I hate to think he died alone, that his friends might have abandoned him out of fear," said Jaime, a Bloomingdale High sophomore and junior varsity football player. He shared memories of pretending to be a knight with his brother at Renaissance fairs, and spoke of the pain his family still feels.
"I hate that I couldn't have been there to keep him from doing something so stupid," he said.
NOPE volunteers will go to Robinson High School on Oct. 17, and the group is working with other high schools such as Plant, Brandon, Newsome and Armwood to plan presentations.
The NOPE school presentation "kicks them in the gut," Michele Phillips said.
The students listen to a 911 call from a mother who found her son dead from an overdose. They also look at a body bag and hear from families who have lost loved ones to prescription drug abuse.
Jaime plans on speaking at as many of the high schools as he can.
"Spencer's death has had a huge impact on our lives and will continue to do so as long as we live," he said. "I talk to my friends and my teammates about what happened. I don't hide from it."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3321.