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North Texas Overdose Awareness Day balances prevention, remembrance amid fentanyl crisis

Jamie Landers, Breaking News Reporter, Dallas Morning News  Here is the story link >

DENTON — Every five minutes, punctual and precise, the chimes of a handheld bell reminded the crowd why they had gathered outside the old Denton County courthouse.

It was too easy to get swept away in the stories playing out on the platform, to lose sight of an even bigger picture. Parents lamented the cruelty of burying their children over drugs, of faltering faith and questions unanswered. Others, through brief and vulnerable recollections of their own addiction, offered promises of second chances and redemption.

“Look around,” Sarah Roland asked the nearly 100 people gathered in the city’s downtown square Thursday evening for North Texas Overdose Awareness Day. “Not every community has this, but every community should.”

They should, she said, because no community has been left untouched by the epidemic, because over the duration of the 90-minute event, at least 18 more families joined the ranks of people who have lost a loved one to an overdose.

One more, every five minutes.

In 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the nationwide toll reached more than 110,500 people, largely fueled by synthetic opioids like fentanyl — a drug 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

In the same year, authorities say fentanyl killed an average of five Texans every day, and almost 500 of them lived in North Texas.

To honor those who have died and hold space for those left behind, events like Denton’s are held globally each year on Aug. 31. The Roland family started the North Texas branch in 2018 in honor of Sarah’s brother, Randy, who died of a fentanyl and heroin overdose two years prior. He was 32.

Randy, Sarah said, struggled with addiction for more than a decade. Still, at the time of his death, he was happy, engaged and had plans to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

“Drugs don’t discriminate,” Sarah said, “and the tragedy of overdose deaths is preventable.”


‘Time to Remember. Time To Act’

As part of the theme “Time to Remember. Time To Act,” the awareness day campaign aims to not only memorialize the dead but to prevent overdoses by way of reduced stigma and increased education.

Among dozens of resource tables sprawled across the lawn — including those from local law enforcement agencies and organizations such as Denton Freedom House, Winning the Fight, Military Veteran Peer Network and Roots Renewal Ranch — were free doses of naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdoses.

After securing a free pack of naloxone nasal spray, 52-year-old Lori Peterson told The Dallas Morning News she has kept at least one dose in her purse every day since 2021, when a close friend’s 17-year-old son died of a fentanyl overdose after a Halloween party.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility that he could have been saved had one of the friends he was with had a measly little nasal spray on them. It seems far too simple,” Peterson said. “I guess in a weird way, by carrying this around, it feels like honoring him.”

Peterson said she has advocated for family members, from her mother to her 15-year-old niece, in New Mexico to start carrying naloxone, adding the multiple generations represented in Thursday’s turnout left her “heartened and inspired” to think other attendees might do the same.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing for anyone of any age to witness such open conversations about this kind of life-saving medication like what we’ve heard tonight,” she said.

‘Too many names’

To close out the event, Sarah and her daughter, 10-year-old Ellie Smith, read off dozens of names of overdose victims.

As they read, a sea of memorial posters and yard signs staked in the grass added an array of faces — victims from as early as 2016, to as recent as June.

“Missed beyond measure,” one sign read. “It is not safe to be a teenager in America anymore,” read another.

In a closing prayer, Jonathan Perry, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Denton, thanked the community for showing up, and the “solidarity, compassion, love and care” it implied.

“For each life represented and remembered tonight … we speak their precious names, we lift their sacred stories, we celebrate their unending courage and we give thanks for their beloved lives,” Perry said.

“We will always love them and we will never give up.”

As he finished, the bell rang once more.