BUFFALO, N.Y. – For a second year, the Erie County Health Department hosted a vigil for members of the community to gather and remember those who have died from an opiate or heroin addiction.
A long line of photos and sneakers no longer worn showed the deadly toll opiates have taken.
In addition to a series of speakers, names were also read out loud. The problem is, the list of names is still growing.
In 2017, the health department confirms 112 opiate overdose deaths, with another 132 suspected, but not yet confirmed. With four months left in the year, Erie County will likely be on par with its number of reported overdose deaths in 2016.
Still, there is hope. Debra Smith lost her son Nathaniel about two years ago, and while she still struggles, she finds comfort in meeting other parents who are going through similar grief.
"It's helpful to have an event like this at all because we know that we're not alone, we know that we are a grieving community. We know that so many families here, the parents that are…have lost their children, have lost their loved ones,” Smith said.
The young man in the photos she shared struggled with chronic pain from kidney stones at an early age, and later from a car and bike accident, and over the years, Nathaniel realized his addiction and tried to fight it.
"He was kind considerate, loving, thoughtful,” Smith said.
Among those who attended Thursday’s vigil, there were tears and hugs. Flowers were left by symbolic pairs of shoes, and balloons detailed messages and names from grieving families.
Autumn Ormerod was brave enough to share that she is a recovering addict who knew one too many of the faces in the displayed photos.
"I know that if I dwell, all it's going to is bring me back, and I'm just going to be another name on this board along with him,” Autumn said.
“He” is her cousin, Michael Pawelek Jr., who died from an overdose in June.
She and her family attended the vigil to remember him, all of them donning a shirt with his picture.
Autumn's story is among the toughest to hear; She was with him when he died.
"Overdose Awareness Day isn't a day. I'm aware of it every single day of my life,” she said. “I woke up to that news. I went to bed, and we were fine, and we woke up, and my entire world did a 360.”
Autumn said she knows nothing can bring him back, so she’s trying to create something positive out of her experience with addiction.
"All I can do is do better for myself and for his kids and for my nieces and nephews and hope for the best that they learn from our mistakes,” she said.
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