Community members hold candlelight vigil on remembering those who’ve died from overdoses

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — International Overdose Awareness Day is annually held on August 31, but community members are still remembering those who are no longer here and shining a light on substance use.

Both JOLT Harm Reduction and Broken No More organized a candlelight memorial Wednesday night to honor those loved and lost due to overdoses. The vigil was originally planned for Tuesday but was rescheduled due to the rain.

About 50 people gathered on the Peoria Riverfront and united for a night of remembrance where they shared stories with one another and reflected on memories of their loved ones.

“This is to honor and remember everyone lost to overdose and substance use,” Tamara Olt, Executive Director and founder of Jolt Foundation, said. “And also to provide awareness, maybe people don’t realize how many people are dying.”

Olt said the Jolt Foundation promotes and provides education and programs related to harm reduction. She said the foundation was born after she lost her 16-year-old son Joshua to a heroin overdose in 2012.

“I’ve been dealing with the grief and for the past nine years and trying to make a difference here in Peoria to decrease overdose deaths,” Olt said.

But she said the issue seems to be growing. She said from January 2020 to January 2021, 95,309 people died in the United States from overdoses, which is a 30.9% increase from the previous year.

This is a number leaving an impact on all who attended Wednesday night’s vigil, as Olt said there’s a real person behind each statistic.

“Hopefully, we can remember that every life matters and that people who use drugs have a right to live and exist,” Olt said.

The city even lit the Murray Baker Bridge purple in honor of the day.

Chris Schaffner, program director of JOLT Harm Reduction, acknowledged there’s a negative stigma attached to substance use, but said the issue is more complicated than face value.

“We like to think that it’s just a collection of bad decisions that an individual has made with no context into the life they’ve led, the experiences they’ve had, the community they’re a part of,” Schaffner said. “Whether that’s poverty or influence, or they’ve experienced trauma or struggled with mental illness.”

He also said Wednesday’s vigil should also honor those dedicated to helping reverse overdoses every day.

“Harm reduction workers, Naloxone distribution, Narcan slingers that are single-handily reversing overdoses, themselves, every single day,” Schaffner said.

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