ROCKINGHAM — Jeff Pressley would have been 54 on Saturday — but he never made it.
Instead, he was one of 29 people who lost their lives to addiction featured on two banners during Steve’s Wings’ third annual Overdose Awareness Rally.
The event was started in 2021 by Melissa Schoonover, who has lost several family members to addiction, including her father — the organization’s namesake — and her son, Chris Schoonover.
“…addiction has affected my entire life, my whole family, and enough is enough,” Schoonover said.
She recalled Dec. 14 of last year, when she had received a call about a relative overdosing.
“In the process of going to check on that relative, I went to check on my son — and he didn’t answer the door,” Schoonover said.
She found him on the floor and said he had been gone for hours.
“We’re losing people out here left and right. The death toll is climbing and our community really needs to … pull together and realize there is a serious stigma in this county.”
Records from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner show that Richmond County had the highest rate of fentanyl-involved deaths in the state for 2022.
Another OCME report released in July shows that North Carolina has had 314 or more confirmed fatal overdoses from May 2021-October 2022. That report also shows that there have been 1,778 suspected overdose deaths in the state from January to May of this year.
Schoonover said that, in general, people don’t get involved until they lose someone.
“Addiction is pulling families apart,” Schoonover continued. “It destroys everybody, not just the person that’s addicted.”
Richmond County Commissioner Jason Gainey — who is also president of Sandhills Best Care and a pastor — encouraged those in attendance to look at the banners.
“This is far more important than who I am or who I represent,” Gainey said. “These are our friends and loved ones and family members that have been affected … by drugs … Whatever happens to folks before us … we use that as our fire … to make a difference in our community.”
Sandhills Best Care was one of several businesses and organizations with an informational booth at the event. Others included Daymark Recovery Services, Samaritan Colony, the Get Clean and Recover Ministry, Rodriguez Insurance Solutions, and the Richmond County Rescue Squad.
Earlier in the week, CEO Dr. Tammie Gainey was part of a roundtable discussion on Medicaid expansion with Gov. Roy Cooper. Part of that conversation centered around mental health and addiction.
Citing scripture from Ecclesiastes, Gainey said that three or more people working together “can not be easily overthrown.”
“I think the battle with drugs, many times, leaves the person feeling all alone, and I believe that’s (how) our enemy wants to feel — all alone, ” Gainey said. But together, with divine help, he added, momentum begins to build “and we can find freedom and deliverance.”
Bruce Almon, of Get Clean and Recover Ministry in Ellerbe, knows about addiction first-hand.
Almon said was formerly addicted to alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and pills, but has been drug-free for 24 years.
“I lost everything, but God gave it back,” Almon said.
But others he knows haven’t been as fortunate.
Two weeks prior to the rally, Almon said he attended the funerals of two people who died from overdose.
“It’s sad, cause it’s young folks,” Almon said.
Of the 29 featured on the aforementioned banners, 15 were under the age of 40.
Heather Rodriguez, an insurance agent, has lost family members to methamphetamine addiction and has lost seven Richmond County clients since January — the youngest being 22 years old, the oldest 36.
Almon and Rodriguez have both come back to their home county to join the fight against drug addiction.
Rodriguez said one issue is the lack of resources in rural areas, compared to those in larger cities like Greensboro and Raleigh.
According to Rodriguez, the waiting list to get into treatment is so extensive, some addicts are dying before they can get help.
Samaritan Colony is in the process of easing that burden.
The facility has served men for four decades and is currently constructing a women’s treatment center at its campus north of Rockingham.
Almon said those who are addicted have to decide that they’re ready to get clean.
“I can’t do it for you, but I can help you,” Almon said, “…but you’ve got to want it.”
The only way to make it through, Almon added, is “one day at a time.”
Schoonover said addicts should be praised if they can recover, “because the recovery is that intense.”
“People don’t realize you cannot just up and walk away from this addiction … it practically takes your soul from you,” Schoonover said. “The only way to stay sober is to seek Jesus, and that’s the God’s-honest truth.”
Like Almon, Beth Taylor is also a former addict, turning to crack, meth and alcohol following her first divorce.
Taylor is now affiliated with Place of Grace Campus, running the food pantry, and works at a local hotel.
“I’ve had an opportunity to feed meals to addicts, where they’ve used their resources and their money to feed their addiction,” Taylor said. “In sharing that, we also share a message: that there is help, there is hope.
“Richmond County is a small county … and for us to be No. 1 in overdose deaths from fentanyl … it’s sad. Sad is not even an adequate word for how this makes me feel every time I hear of another.”
Taylor said she attended 14 overdose-related funerals from 2019 to 2021.
“Behind, they leave children (and other family members) … people who wanted the best for them,” Taylor continued.
April Britton was 37 when she passed away in 2019 leaving behind five children.
One of her daughters, Chloe Jimmerson, said she grieves by writing notes to her mother and sending them to her old phone number.
She read one of them aloud during Saturday’s event:
“…Words can’t describe how much I miss you. I can’t believe you’re gone. You still had so many years to live. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t warned that you were going to be gone one day. I thought that you were going to be here forever … I miss everything.
“I didn’t want you to be remembered as someone who took drugs. I want you to be remembered as someone many people loved and cared for. Someone who loved her family and friends more than anything in the world. Someone who knew how to put a smile on mine or anyone else’s face, and the greatest blessing I ever had.”
In addition to Pressley, Chris Schoonover and Britton, those featured on the banners were:
- Carlos Rosado, 35
- Wendy Odom, 41
- Charlene Giddens, 47
- Keith Clark, 36
- Latayiah Ratliff, 25
- Kelli Burgess, 32
- Gloria Webb, 55
- Dustin Hatfield, 31
- Torrey Alexander, 25
- Amanda Mills, 35
- Dawn Parker, 37
- Rick Byrd, 37
- Shannon Brown, 39
- Boyd Cassidy, 52
- Ruben Arias III, 29
- Larry Ingram, 42
- Bryan Robinson, 42
- Candice Williams, 36
- Coy McMillan, 31
- Julia Ann Skipper, 28
- Dillon Locklear, 50
- Richard Pugh, 34
- Trenton Wood, 22
- James Lord, 65
- Jessica Wright, 37
- Laura Kent, 33
“No one wakes up and says, ‘I want to be a dope addict,’” Taylor said. “Pain and heartache and hurt from life causes them to reach for just about any and everything, and before they know it, they have a problem that is really hard to get rid of.”
Schoonover, Taylor and the Rev. Charlie Tyler, chaplain for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and pastor at Timber’s Crossing FWB Church, encouraged the crowd to reach out to those facing addiction.
“There might be somebody that can’t reach them,” Tyler said, “but you might be that very individual that can reach that one.”
“Don’t throw ‘em to the wolves, just because they’re drug-addicted,” Schoonover pleaded. “Don’t wait till they’re gone.”