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Candlelight vigil emphasizes the dangers of drug abuse

TAMPA

Mother's Day 2007 was a special time for Michele Phillips and her two sons.

Her oldest, Spencer Foster, had given her two dozen multi-colored roses.

"He hugged me and said, 'Mom, let's make this a great day,' " said Phillips, 45, of Valrico. "It was a great day. It was a blast."

The three headed to Busch Gardens. By nightfall, her youngest, Jamie Phillips, was so tired Foster, 14, was carrying him to the car. That was the last time the three were together.

A month later, Phillips learned Foster, who had been spending the summer at his father's house in Westchase, had died of an overdose of OxyContin, Soma and alcohol.

That was four years ago. On Thursday, Phillips gathered with 200 others at the Museum of Science and Industry for a candlelight vigil organized by the Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force. Around the country, 56 similar vigils were being held, including one at Largo Central Park in Pinellas County.

The two-hour event was intended to remember those who had died from drugs and to call attention to drug and alcohol addiction. Last year, 9,001 people died from drug-related overdoses in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Eighty-one percent of those were prescription drug deaths.

Behind the amphitheater at MOSI, the names and pictures of many of the overdose victims flashed on a video screen. Hundreds more pictures hung from red ribbons on a fence.

One by one, speakers approached a podium to recount their own struggles with addiction or to highlight the personal toll of drugs on family members. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, the lead speaker, said drug abuse is epidemic and affects entire communities.

"We in law enforcement are doing everything we can to stop this," she said. "Too many young lives are being taken away way too early."

Phillips, vice chairwoman of the Hillsborough NOPE Task Force, spoke toward the end of the program with her son Jamie at her side.

Her arm intertwined with his, she talked about Foster's life and last day. He was a strong kid with dimples and a buzz cut in preparation for football season, she said. He challenged authority, but "could charm just about anybody." She also recalled the Busch Gardens trip and the day of his death a month later.

When she arrived at his father's house, a sheriff's deputy warned her not to go inside. "I said 'I saw him come into this world, and I'm going to see him leave it,' " she said.

Phillips told the crowd that four years later she still seeks answers. She doesn't know how her son got the drugs or why he took them. No outward signs suggested a problem.

Jamie, a football player at Bloomingdale High, didn't address the crowd. He attended the vigil to honor his brother, Phillips said. Many of his teammates did the same. Afterward, the Tampa Bay Children's Chorus sang as the crowd lit candles to remember loved ones.

"I just hope that by standing up and speaking out about Spencer's life, he can have meaning for others," Phillips said.

Rich Shopes can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Candlelight vigil emphasizes the dangers of drug abuse 10/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 3:39pm]
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