Vigil remembers those lost to addiction

Photos by Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Dylan Blessinger of Jasper, 7, looks at the photograph worn by his father, Chad, as they remember Chad’s friend, Ryan, during a candlelight vigil in observance of International Overdose Awareness Day — which is today — hosted by the Dubois County Substance Abuse Council at the Jasper Riverwalk gazebo on Thursday evening. “He had every reason to want to quit and yet he couldn’t,” Chad said about his friend. “So I try to remember him and stop it from happening to others.”


JASPER — Addiction is a battle Elijah Smith of Jasper has fought for decades.

He’d lie. He’d steal. He’d do whatever it took to get his fix and stave off inevitable withdrawal. He knows what it’s like to hurt. He knows what it’s like to suffer.

Smith was a speaker Thursday night at a candlelight vigil at the Jasper Riverwalk gazebo, where attendees gathered to remember loved ones who struggled with addiction. He solemnly grabbed the microphone in front of a crowd of about 50 people and told a harrowing story of how he first stuck a needle in his arm when he was 13 years old and has been up and down ever since.

Smith is now 33 months clean. On Aug. 23 of this year, however, his sister, Kat Smith of Valparaiso, formerly of Jasper, died after a friend snuck heroin into the Gary hospital she was receiving medical treatment at and directly into her IV. She was 35.

Elijah Smith of Jasper shares his story of overcoming addiction and losing his sister one week ago.

“I fought so long for both of us to get clean,” Smith said, fighting back tears in his address to vigil attendees. “I begged her and begged her. She left behind two boys — a 12-year-old and a 10-year-old that look just like their momma. But one thing I do know is that she doesn’t have to fight that battle every day anymore.”

The event was the first of its kind hosted by the Dubois County Substance Abuse Council, and will be an annual occurrence.

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day, and substance abuse council member Jim McFaul said the gathering was one of only a handful in the state of Indiana that marked the day.

“People need to know,” Smith said about opioid addiction. “A lot of people just don’t understand ... The biggest thing is they pass judgement, and condemn an addict, or condemn somebody for using. Push them away, and push them deeper into addiction. So, it’s nice to see a community that’s actually coming together.”

Kinzie Julian of Huntingburg, 6, lights her candle during the vigil. Kinzie attended the vigil with her family to remember her godfather, Noel Garduno.
Katie Sanders of Jasper shares her story of overcoming addiction and losing her brother, Jeremy Caccamo.

According to statistics presented by McFaul, from 2012 to 2016, nearly 6,000 people in Indiana died from drug poisoning. Eighteen of them were Dubois County residents.

Thursday’s Riverwalk event featured acoustic music by local singer and guitarist Debbie Schuetter and a speech on opioid addiction from Terry Cook, the assistant director of the state’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction. Other attendees also shared their experiences and losses with the somber crowd.

McFaul’s son, Ross, died from an opioid overdose five years ago in Chicago. Thursday was the first time McFaul spoke publicly of his death.

“You never want to bury your own child,” he said prior to the vigil. “It’s difficult because we never thought it would reach that point. We knew that Ross had issues. We knew that he had problems with alcohol, and we never expected that he’d reach the point where he’d overdose on opioids. We never had a clue.”

Ross was in rehab for several weeks, but relapsed after leaving, which led to his overdose. McFaul said he will never lose the feeling of love he has for his son. He will never lose the place in his heart that belongs to Ross. Some days are easier than others, McFaul said, but Ross will never be forgotten.

McFaul was instrumental in organizing Thursday’s event, and he said his biggest goal was to provide candid conversations about the opioid epidemic and the stigma that comes with drug addiction. He said drug addiction is a disease and should be treated as such.

“People that are addicted to drugs — they didn’t want that,” he said. “It literally takes over the will, the body and the soul, and when that happens, they’re helpless. Hopefully, people in that condition with that disease can recover. It’s a long, tough road to recovery. And not everybody makes it.”

McFaul said those who are struggling with addiction need to seek medical attention or counseling through local resources such as Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center or Southern Hills Counseling Center, both in Jasper.

Ashley Lueken of Jasper smells a carnation during the vigil.

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