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East TN Nonprofit Fighting Addiction Stigma, Fear of Calling for Help

Every morning, Charme Allen says she starts her day looking over a list of all the deaths in Knox County the night before.

It's not what Allen pictured herself doing when she became district attorney general in 2014.

"I thought I would be in an office where we protected people from dying at the hands of other people," Allen told about 200 people gathered Wednesday night at Volunteer Landing. "What I didn't see coming was the great number of folks that are dying at their own hands. All the folks that are ODing. … I'm very aware of that now."

Already, Knox County has logged 146 suspected overdose deaths for 2016, compared to a little more than 70 for all of 2015.

"It took us (prosecutors) a while to come around to the understanding that addiction is not a choice — addiction is a disease," Allen said. "And I want you to know that we are starting to get that. … And knowing that it is a disease, we are really invested in the prevention of overdose deaths" — which, she said, also prevents crime "down the road."

Allen was among about two hours' worth of speakers at the nonprofit Tennessee Overdose Prevention's International Overdose Awareness Day event, the second in Knox County. Those speakers included law enforcement officers, people providing recovery services, and those who have lost family members to drug overdoses.

One after another, speakers hammered home the need for better awareness, more resources, less stigma.

"We need funding, we need treatment centers, we need housing," said Dave Pelsor, an opiod addict in recovery who lost his son to an overdose. "The (stereotype) of an addict under a bridge is not true anymore. It affects all — all — walks of life."

Many people present wore names or photos "in memory" of loved ones lost to drugs. Others openly advertised their hard-won sobriety.

Between speakers, about 40 men and women of various ages and races posed against the backdrop of Fort Loudoun Lake for a photo to illustrate the "Face of Recovery" on a new billboard in Knoxville.

And to the side stood another, with them in spirit if not image.

"My mom doesn't know," she quietly confided.

Seeing her daughter's face on a Tennessee Overdose Prevention billboard with other addicts in recovery "might give her a heart attack," the woman said.

Such stigma keeps people from getting help, said Rhonda Coffey, who founded the Addict's Family, a Tri-Cities nonprofit, after her 33-year-old son, Dave Coffey, died of an overdose in July 2015. Coffey said she wanted addicts and those trying to help them to have a community of "real people, not just online" to whom they could openly talk about what they were dealing with.

Also, "my son was in the presence of someone who chose not to call 911 until it was too late," Coffey said.

Allen spoke about Tennessee's "Good Samaritan" law, which went into effect July 2015 but has, she said, been underused.

"If you in good faith believe that somebody is overdosing, you can call law enforcement, you can call an ambulance, you can call 911, and the law prohibits us from arresting, charging or prosecuting you from any drug-related crime," Allen said. "Because we found so many people were doing drugs together, and somebody started overdosing, but nobody would call because nobody wanted to get in trouble — I want you to know and hear as a community, that law is on the books. If you are with somebody and they need help, make the call. Get them the help they need, and we are not going to come after you for a drug-related crime."

Allen, Coffey and other speakers said the need to talk about addiction is paramount, to ease the stigma and to underscore the need for more resources. The evening ended with a candlelight vigil during which overdose victims' names were read aloud as Miss Chattanooga pageant winner Caty Davis sang "Go Rest High on That Mountain."

To those in recovery, "you guys are worth every battle, every war, every voice that will speak on your behalf," said Sherry Petrowski, who lost a son to addiction. "Don't you ever let anyone tell you you're not."

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