The numbers are staggering in North Carolina where 12,000 people died from opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2016. The families gathered in downtown Raleigh are the ones they left behind. They're here to help stop the epidemic.
"He was a fighter and man, he was really fighting the drug," said Will Stephenson, joined by his wife, Diane, and their daughter-in-law Celeste.
"I kissed her goodbye and told her I was not going to let her die in vain." ----— Joel Brown (@JoelBrownABC11) September 1, 2018
Dozens of NC families descend on Bicentennial Plaza for International Overdose Awareness Day amid an opioid epidemic considered to be the worst in U.S. history. #abc11 pic.twitter.com/EGiU521esH
Their son and Celeste's husband, Parker Stephenson, died after an opioid overdose just three months ago. Celeste was wearing a picture of Parker on her T-shirt. She's nine months pregnant with their baby girl. But she wanted to be there Friday night.
"Because we have to end the stigma," Celeste said. "Most people think that addicts are these terrible, awful people who are criminals and do all these terrible things; that's not true."
Gaining understanding and raising awareness is a big part of this observance of International Overdose Awareness Day.
"It's just a drug that, it doesn't pick who you are, what you are, or what you are doing; it just goes after you and it takes you. And quite frankly I don't understand it," Will Stephenson said.
“We gotta come together and take our children back.” — Families touched by the opioid epidemic hold candlelight vigil outside NC Capitol.— Joel Brown (@JoelBrownABC11) September 1, 2018
12,000 North Carolinians died from opioid-related overdoses from 1999 to 2016. #abc11 pic.twitter.com/MYia3TaERw
For the second consecutive year, this grassroots coalition of non-profit organizations gathered on Bicentennial Plaza. Many of them were armed with pictures of their lost loved one taken by the crisis.
"I founded a non-profit called Teal Drops," said Susan Stevens who started her non-profit after losing her daughter Toria last year.
Stevens said Toria was a rape survivor who self-medicated with painkillers and became addicted to heroin. She was found dead in 2017 with needles, lying naked on the floor.
"I kissed her goodbye and told her I was not gonna let her die in vain," Stevens said.
In the wake of their personal tragedies, Susan and so many other of these moms and dads have made it their mission to keep the crisis out of the shadows - raising awareness and easing their own pain.
"I don't know the answers. I don't know if anybody knows the answers," Will Stephenson said. "But we've got to come together and take our children back."