Overdose Awareness Day Draws Hundreds to Capitol to Honor Loved Ones
Exactly 176 passengers walked single file into an airplane that sat on the lawn in front of the Utah State Capitol on Friday evening.
Although the Boeing 737 plane was only a vinyl cutout and the passengers were only volunteers standing on the grass, Amber Baum believes the visual is a powerful symbol for the number of people in the United States who die every day from an opioid overdose.
“If that plane crashed, and tomorrow a plane crashed, and the next day a plane crashed, do you think something would happen?” she asked. “Absolutely something would happen.”
Hundreds gathered on the steps of the Capitol for International Overdose Awareness Day to see the plane display and release balloons in honor of those who died from drug overdose.
Baum began organizing the event three years ago, and the number of attendees has grown from 50 to nearly 500.
“We want people to know there is help for people who lost a child or a loved one to overdose,” she said. “We also want you to know that overdose deaths are preventable. We have the tools to fight this.”
Her daughter, McKenzie, died from a heroin overdose in her Lehi home when she was 22 years old. When Baum found out her daughter was using drugs, she said she didn’t tell anyone because she felt embarrassed and ashamed.
“I thought it was a parenting error,” she recalled. “It’s not a parenting error. It’s definitely something that a parent doesn’t cause.”
Two years after her daughter’s death, Baum decided she wanted to help others who had lost loved ones to overdose. She reached out and found other mothers who had gone through similar experiences.
“We’ve become this crazy, little close-knit group of moms I love as much as my own family,” she said.
Before and during the event, Baum went around hugging and chatting with those who she knew had lost loved ones.
Terry Ann Olsen, of Cedar Hills, never thought drug overdoses would affect her family. When her son, Dane, was hurt in an ATV accident, she didn’t realize he would experience withdrawals from his pain medications.
“We knew he was on pain meds, but we didn’t really know how that was impacting him,” she said.
After suffering relapses and attending in-patient rehab and methadone clinics, her son died of an overdose when he was 25 years old.
“As hard as it is, I think what we all feel is we’re glad no one has to do it alone,” Olsen said. “I was grateful for the people who reached out to me, so I reach out.”
She founded the Utah chapter of Changes Parent Support, a support network for parents who have children struggling with addictions. The organization offers emotional support as well as help with individual events like attending court dates.
“We want the public to see the impact that these losses are having across the board. This happens in every family, in every neighborhood, in every economic group,” Olsen said.
At the International Overdose Awareness Day, Blu Robinson, founder and coach for Addict-to-Athlete, hosted a proxy run from 9800 South up State Street for those who died in overdoses. He spoke at the event along with recovering addict and author Dan Workman and state Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
“We have to teach others who are going through nightmares and horror shows that they have friends, they have support,” Hughes said. “That’s how we’re going to get through this, and that’s how we’re going to beat this.”
Aimee Hadfield, of Salt Lake City, has siblings who are battling addictions, though she doesn’t like to use the word “addict” to describe them.
“I would like to get us all using person-first language the same way we do with medical disabilities and mental illnesses,” she said.
Hadfield has almost finished her Master of Social Work at Utah Valley University after she left another career three years ago.
She teaches classes as a certified family life educator with Overdose Awareness Utah to help parents understand the signs and types of addiction.
Most importantly, she hopes that the awareness event inspires those who are still struggling.
“It’s about honoring those who are gone but it’s also about providing support and resources and hope for the people still fighting,” Hadfield said. “We want them to be more than a number. We want them to be people.”