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News / Clark County News

Overdose Awareness Day pays tribute to Clark County residents lost to drugs

In Clark County, opioids killed 128 people last year

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: September 2, 2023, 6:04am
5 Photos
Photos of overdose victims fill a field during an Overdose Awareness Day event.
Photos of overdose victims fill a field during an Overdose Awareness Day event. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Dewy grass swished under people’s feet as they ambled through rows of cardboard signs exhibiting the lives lost to substances in Clark County. A soft drizzle kissed the printed faces of someone’s mother, father, daughter, son, friend, neighbor.

On Thursday, community members, advocates and local leaders gathered in honor of Overdose Awareness Day. The day is recognized across the world, but it was started locally by Lyn Fortner.

In 2012, Fortner lost her 18-year-old son to a heroin overdose. A few years later, she learned about Overdose Awareness Day.

“My plan was to stand in a park on this day. I didn’t care. I just wanted to do something,” Fortner said.

But when she walked into Kleen Street Recovery Cafe one day and shared her plans, she was connected with Clark County Community Services and Public Health. From there, she gained support from other local agencies to create the event and hold training on naloxone — a medication that can be given in the midst of an opioid overdose and temporarily counters the effects of the overdose.

Fortner now partners with Southwest Washington Accountable Community of Health, among other entities, to host the annual event. Her hope for the event is to encourage dialogue among families about substance use and dismantle the stigmas associated with drugs.

Last year, 109,680 people died from substance overdoses in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alongside Wyoming, Washington saw the greatest increase, 21 percent, in drug-related deaths.

“When I started this event, I was talking about 144 a day dying (nationally),” Fortner said. “Now it’s over 300.”

In Clark County, 128 people died by overdose last year, as the fentanyl crisis continued. The county saw a 500 percent increase in fentanyl overdose deaths between 2018 and 2022.

In August, city and county officials met with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to ring the alarm on the fentanyl epidemic in Clark County that isn’t showing signs of slowing down.

“My hope (for this event) is that families talk about it — talk about Mom and Dad’s drug use, talking with our children directly about the risk of fentanyl, especially. You cannot get anything where fentanyl is not part of it,” Fortner said. “That changes everything. … I don’t want to hear more stories of more children overdosing in bathrooms.”

During Thursday’s event, advocates said these numbers are frightening and that stigma and shame are a hindrance in overcoming substance addiction and preventing overdoses in the community. Fortner wants people to talk with their families, friends and doctors about substance and alcohol use.

“My son mattered. He was important,” she said. “He left behind two children, and we have too many families that are separated by loss or drug and alcohol use and this quiet stigma and shame.”

Community service providers — such as Lifeline Connections, Molina Healthcare of Washington and XChange Recovery, among others — attended the event. Attendees could gather resources and get a 10-minute tutorial on how to administer naloxone, commonly known as Narcan.

The evening also amplified the voices of those who are in recovery.

Jacqueline Alley will celebrate five years in recovery in October. She now works as an outreach coordinator at XChange Recovery.

She said these types of events put a face and name to those in the community who are dealing with substance addictions or have died due to overdose.

“I have personally lost quite a few friends this year to overdose,” Alley said. “These are people’s sons and daughters. … These are people.”

She suggested people carry naloxone and have it readily available.

Anyone can purchase it at a pharmacy without seeing a provider first or at naloxone vending machines at XChange Recovery, Lifeline Connections Recovery Resource Center and Recovery Café Clark County. Most insurance companies cover 100 percent of the cost. Clark County Public Health Harm Reduction Center also has 10-minute basic training available for people.

Event speakers also discussed the importance of community and how those struggling with substance use have people they can turn to for help.

Richelle Beck, outreach specialist for Lifeline Connections, was 12 when her father attempted to die by suicide by overdosing. She was the one who took care of him and called for help. Her dad survived, but the incident changed her.

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The next day, her mom sent her to school with a note that read, “Please excuse Richelle’s tardiness, her father tried to take his life last night.”

Instead of asking how she was, everyone asked about her father.

“Rightly so, but I was 12 and struggling to deal with what I had just experienced,” she said. “I woke up the next morning feeling like a completely different person.”

Beck turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.

“For 30 years, I used drugs and alcohol to make me feel better about life,” said Beck, who explained that she would go to work, but at the end of the day, she would come home and use. “That’s what my family had to watch and experience.”

Through therapy, Alcohol and Narcotics Anonymous, and community support, she was able to recover from her addiction and strengthen relationships with her family.

“That is why I can stand here today and talk about this, because of the community that pulled me in and said, ‘We got you. We’re going to take care of you, and we’re going to help you through this,’” Beck said.

“There is hope. As long as we’re still alive, there is hope,” she said. “If you’ve lost someone to overdose, there is still hope for you, too.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.