ROCKINGHAM — Many in Richmond County have known or either know of someone who is struggling with addiction; it is a stronghold, not easily broken.
In 2020, Richmond County’s opioid overdose rated among the highest in the state, according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, therefore concerned residents gathered downtown Rockingham to rally for the cause Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
Richmond County resident Melissa Schoonover last year founded Steve’s Wings, a group helping to raise awareness of the increasing opioid epidemic as well as being available to help those in need and connect them with needed resources.
Around 75 people, including state Rep. Ben Moss, R-Richmond, attended the rally which began around noon with an awareness walk. Due to the temperature being in the 90s, the downtown walk was cut shorter than planned.
Amanda Kempen is no stranger to addiction, as she is a recovered alcoholic and drug user herself. Being clean for four years, she felt the need to reach out to others who are struggling.
Following a moment of silence in remembrance of the late Sheriff James Clemmons and a prayer — asking God to bring encouragement instead of despair and to make it a day of hope — by Pastor Ernie Walters, Kempen led the crowd in singing “Lean on Me.”
The song echoed throughout downtown as a banner led the way with pictures of numerous people who lost the battle of addiction. More photos were raised in remembrance throughout the walk, and, halfway through, all stopped for a few minutes and chanted “Change, Hope”.
Several information booths — some of which offered face painting, balloons, and snacks for children — were set up to share resources with anyone interested, including:
- Detective Sgt. Mitchell Watson from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office
- Rodolfo Ramirez from Haven in Lee County
- Daymark Recovery Services
- Kendra Faries and Cheryl Speight with the Richmond County Drug Endangered Family Task Force
- Stephanie Hoover and Chrystal West from Sandhills Opioid Response Consortium
- Steve’s Wings volunteers Jerry Strickland, Bryce Barber, and Jordan and Felisha Honeycutt.
Free Bibles and CDs on overdose awareness were also available. Truck vendors Kona Ice offered an ice-cold drink to cool off, and MaMa Blair’s Wings & Things had food available to purchase.
The first speaker was Stephanie Hoover, who spoke about her experiences with her late son’s overdoses.
Hoover shared that his first overdose caused him to have a massive heart attack. After he was discharged from the hospital, he lasted four days in rehab — then he left.
“I was a single mother of four younger children at home,” she said. “He wanted to come back home, but I had to start setting boundaries for him. He started using again.”
Hoover went on to say that in six months, he told her he wanted to go back into rehab again. After he completed the program, he began dating and married.
“He started using again and, in 2017, he overdosed for the second time,: Hoover said. “He had another heart attack and kidney damage this time.”
Hoover said her son was released from the hospital and came to visit on Memorial Day weekend — and he was high on drugs again.
“Because of his younger siblings who adored him, I had to make a hard choice and decided it best that he not be able to come to the house to visit again until he was clean for one year,” Hoover recalled. “On June 2, 2017, at 10:38 in the morning, my daughter-in-law called me and told me he was dead. He was only 22 years old.
“ I had to tell his four younger siblings their brother had died. I can’t tell you much about what happened the next few weeks,” Hoover continued. “When you touch your child and they are cold, that’s something you never want to do. But I made a promise to him that his life would have a meaning; there is going to be a legacy for you. That day changed my life.
“Addiction is a disease; it may start as a choice, but it takes over,” Hoover added. “Relapse is part of the disease. It’s hard to see someone you love who has grasped recovery go back to relapse; it’s really, really challenging. When they do, that’s when we need to set boundaries.
“Two of my other children didn’t know how to deal with their brother’s death and turned to drugs. Thank goodness they are both in recovery and doing great because they are learning new coping skills.”
Several speakers from different organizations also spoke about help that is available. Several who have recovered from drug use told their story.
Walters also spoke as he encouraged anyone struggling not to give up. He read from the scripture in Psalm 139:16.
Joni Harrison, from Forsyth County, was in the crowd with a picture of her great-nephew, Christian Wilson, who was only 19 years old when he overdosed in 2019. He left behind a baby boy.
Harrison told how Wilson had been doing drugs and went for a purchase thinking he was getting heroin, but instead it was 100% fentanyl. He used the drug that day as he normally would have used heroin, but within a few hours was dead.
“Lessons learned, you don’t know what you are really getting from your dealer” said Harrison, stressing the fact that others using would be aware of this and that it could also happen to them. She added that the dealer has been charged and is facing a murder trial.
Several of Wilson’s family members were there in support of the awareness, including his mother, Crystal Wilson. She is making a difference by contributing to Not in Vain, which is a Facebook page of more than 5,000 members worldwide. Crystal Wilson recommends the group for mothers who have lost children to overdose. Not in Vain was started by a mother who lost two daughters to overdose.
Nearing the end of the rally, two 12-year-olds stepped up to the microphone and spoke of their loss.
The first one to speak was Payton Bullard, who spoke of her father Tony Bullard’s death on June 30, 2020. Payton’s grandmother, Janice Blanton, is now raising her. “We all need to rally to get drugs off the streets”, said Blanton.
Twelve-year-old Nevaeh Griffin also spoke about her mother Julia Ann Skipper’s overdose in 2017. Skipper was 28 years old.
Due to Griffin’s father currently being in recovery, she is living with her grandparents Randy and Sandy Ard.
Schoonover started Steve’s Wings as she was motivated to carry on her father’s legacy to help others.
“That is what he would have wanted”, said Schoonover, mentioning meetings scheduled for next month. “We will be discussing reaching out to those who are battling substance misuse disorder. We have a lot in store for the future, one being a facility. Right now, we are concentrating on the substance misuse. I am very blessed to have everybody who is a part of my staff, they are all God sent!”
For help or more information regarding Steve’s Wings, visit the Facebook page or contact Schoonover at 910-417-8740.