PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — In the past year, more than 107,000 Americans have died from overdose deaths and nearly 70% were due to Fentanyl.

Central Illinois is no stranger to the dangers of the nationwide overdose epidemic.

Community leaders said the silent killer, substance use, has led to about 233 people dying from overdoses in Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford counties since 2019.

Chris Strouse, a local veteran, said he came dangerously close to encountering the deadly life sentence as well.

“God left me here,” Strouse said. “I’m going to take advantage of everything that I can… to prove to myself that I can be better.”

Strouse said his more than 20-year-long struggle with addiction started with alcohol and marijuana, eventually leading to opiates and heroin.

He said the addiction culminated in a four-month-long coma.

“This was when Fentanyl became popular in Peoria,” Strouse said. “I thought it was heroin and it ended up being Fentanyl, and I woke up out of a coma four months later. I shouldn’t be here.”

But Strouse is here, employed, grateful and he said he’s just over a year clean.

He said the love and help of his family, strong willpower, and resources such as the Peoria Recovery Project help put him back on track.

“Love and that embracement and that encounter and just knowing that I’m not alone,” Strouse said. “Just that is a miracle.”

Peoria Recovery Project is a community-wide educational event that raises awareness, works to reduce stigma, and highlights resources for those struggling with substance use disorder and mental health concerns.

The project held its third annual event, Wednesday, at the Warehouse on State in Peoria.

The event coincided with International Overdose Awareness day and had about 30 organizations present

Sharon Harkless, Peoria Recovery Project’s founder, said the event is a guide for those in need.

“Everybody needs a second chance,” Harkless said. “If you’re struggling there always is hope and there’s help and there are people like us here. This place is full of hope and help and we love you all and we just want to see you get better.”

Harkless said the issue of substance use affects more people than one might think and Strouse said when interacting or trying to help someone struggling with addiction, it’s best to try to be more understanding than judgmental.

“Be open-minded. Imagine yourself being that person if you had to wake up that morning wondering what you were going to have to do to feed the demon inside you,” Strouse said. “You can’t pass judgement on people unless you’ve ever taken five steps in that person’s life, you can’t do it.”