Vigil honors Alaskans lost to opioid addiction

Published: Jan. 10, 2019 at 4:27 PM AKST
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The stigma surrounding opioid addiction can sometimes stand in the way of getting help. My House and the MatSu Opioid Addiction Task Force are trying to tear down that stigma by hosting a vigil remembering those lost to addiction, and bring awareness to the opioid epidemic.

John Green is a Wasilla Resident who spearheaded the vigil three years ago because he has a very deep, personal connection with opioid addiction. Green describes his daughter, Kellsie as larger than life.

"She was a livewire is who she was," Green said. "She was creative. She loved to dance. She loved to sing. Beautiful, talented."

But like many people, Kellsie wrestled with a dark side — heroin addiction. After a sexual assault and bullying in school, Kellsie turned to drugs to cope. Green says Kellsie was a fighter. She knew she needed help for her addiction but struggled to get there. That's when Green turned to law enforcement for help.

"There was an outstanding warrant for Kellsie, and I convinced her mother that the best thing we could possibly do was to have her arrested," Green said. "When Kellsie was arrested, we slept. We believed that she was safe, at least from herself."

Five days later, on Jan. 10, 2016, Green was met with the news that his daughter died in her jail cell of dehydration and organ failure, later determined to have been acute symptoms of heroin withdrawal.

"It was a thousand times worse having to go to her mother's house and telling her mother that her daughter died in a place that she should have been safe," Green said.

On the first anniversary of Kellsie's death, her mother wanted to hold a vigil, not only honoring Kellsie, but all lives lost to addiction. So the Green's reached out to My House, a Wasilla-based non-profit organization providing resources to homeless or at risk youth. In the past three years, Green, My House and the MatSu Opioid Task force have been on a warpath to reduce the number of opioid related deaths.

Michelle Overstreet, Founder and Executive Director of My House says the organizations work is paying off.

"In 2016, My House lost a total of 11 kids to overdose. In 2017 after putting Narcan kits in place, drug disposal bags, and increasing treatment access, and screening, we lost one in 2017, and in 2018 we lost none," Overstreet said. "The difference that makes in our community is huge. There are much fewer grieving parents, and people are empowered by the idea that we do have treatment. We do have assessment. We do have support."

260 people in Alaska were saved because of more accessible Narcan in 2018 — 260 fewer names to be read at the third annual vigil remembering those lost to addiction Thursday. It's a vigil with a message of hope.

"Kellsie's story didn't end with dying on the floor of an Anchorage jail," Green said. "Kellsie's story goes on just like any other name that's on that list. It goes on to help somebody else get through this process, or get into recovery. If her story can change just one person's life, then it's done. Kellsie is still doing a lot of work."