NEW PORT RICHEY — The room was filling up fast. For Monica Rousseau, the sight of so many people searching for a seat at the annual Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education candlelight vigil was both heartbreaking and uplifting.
"I can’t even guess how many people are here," Rousseau said as volunteers wheeled in carts with stacks of chairs. "This is so sad. Look at all these people who have lost someone."
As coordinator of Pasco ASAP (Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention), Rousseau helped organize this year’s vigil, held on Oct. 26 at the Verizon Center in New Port Richey. It was one of many held across the country — on the day President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.
The Pasco NOPE vigil, which included poetry, music and speakers who shared personal stories, was meant to honor the hundreds of people in Pasco County who have died from drug overdoses while bringing light to various service organizations available to those with addictions and their loved ones.
"For a lot of the families, it feels like a failure, especially when it’s a child," said Kellie Walker, who was busy mingling and handing out ASAP literature. "There’s comfort in the community for everything."
Part of that comes in addressing a stigma that prevents far too many from seeking help for an illness that Rousseau and others liken to the lifelong care that follows a diagnosis of diabetes. That the room was surging — bringing in well over the 150 or so who had sent RSVPs — was a sign the fog of shame might be lifting.
No one is immune.
Not the teenager from Safe Teens Against Drugs who was greeting folks and handing out candles because "it felt good to be around people who knew what it feels like" to have a parent addicted to drugs. Not county Commissioner Mike Wells or New Port Richey Police Chief Kim Bogart, who spoke of relatives’ struggles with addiction. Not attendee Terri Zaccone, whose son, Thomas DeVito, died at age 29, leaving a 5-month-old daughter and a world of grief. Not Maria Leon, 34, who spilled tears while standing before a makeshift memorial wall alongside her mom, pointing to photographs of people she knew.
Amanda, Ashley, Josh, Kara and Alex all smiled back in better times.
"Half of them aren’t even up there. It’s messed up," Leon said, noting that it was one year to the day that her cousin, Alex Barrios, died from a drug overdose of heroin and fentanyl, a powerful, synthetic painkiller linked to thousands of fatalities nationwide.
"I used to use with him. I got clean, and he didn’t," she said.
"He didn’t have a funeral," said Leon’s mother, Maria Vigil-Kennedy, 69. "For me, this is a way to say goodbye."
Leon, who works as a hairstylist and plans to further her education at Pasco-Hernando State College in the spring, is the flip side — the hope. On Sept. 6, 2014, she made her way out of Overtown an opioid "hot zone" neighborhood in Miami, and into recovery after following her mother to the Tampa Bay area.
It’s a tough, daily climb, with dire consequences for those who don’t make it.
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 64,000 people from across the United States died from overdoses in 2016. Locally, Pasco tied for fourth among Florida’s 67 counties for having the highest drug-poisoning death rate, according to data collected between 2012 and 2015. According to ASAP’s "Profile of Alcohol Drug Indicators," highlighted at its July conference, fentanyl-caused deaths in Pasco have increased tenfold since 2011.
While Pasco is not considered an opioid "hot spot," on Oct. 22 the Sheriff’s Office alerted the community through a Facebook post that deputies had tended to several drug overdoses in west Pasco thought to have been heroin and fentanyl related.
There were nine overdoses in a three-day period, said Sheriff’s Office public information officer Amy Marinec, adding that Narcan, which is used to reverse an overdose, had been administered by first responders.
"It was so alarming that our major felt the need to put it out there to investigate leads to where the drugs were coming from," Marinec said, noting that the Facebook post included a number to call for substance abuse help.
While illegal drugs are procured on the streets, addiction often is traced back to a family’s medicine cabinet or a doctor’s office.
"I never got anything illegally," said Kellie Walker, who long struggled with alcohol and got hooked on narcotics prescribed for anxiety.
After several tries and hospitalizations, she found sobriety in a 12-step program and has been clean for about three years.
"It was free — a last-ditch resort," said Walker, who now helps others by serving on the ASAP recovery committee.
"Most people in recovery have been to more funerals than have seen successes, but there is hope," she said. "There are people that completely recover, get their families back, their lives back, and it’s wonderful to see."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.