JoCo Angels turn their pain into purpose by shining light on reality of opioid addiction

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) – The opioid crisis is hitting hard in North Carolina, where five people die from overdoses every day.

A group of parents are turning their pain into purpose after losing their sons to opioid overdoses.

“Both of our sons ended up committing suicide, but it was due to, we knew there was a connection at that point with opiates too,” said Kelley Blas.

Blas and Rhonda Toppings were brought together by the loss of their sons.

Blas’s son David overdosed on September 28, 2017, after taking several dozen prescription pills.

“He was really kind of that funky gamer kid,” said Blas. “Always wanted to dress up like a cartoon character. Always a sweetheart, full of love.”

Toppings’ son, 20-year-old Chance, died this past January after battling a heroin addiction that started with a prescription for pain pills.

“He had gotten addicted. I didn’t even know it. He ended up turning to the streets and using heroin, which is a very cheap substitute,” said Toppings. “He started using intraveneoulsy, which was my worst nightmare.”

After meeting in grief counseling, the women realized they weren’t alone.  Their sons were two of several West Johnston County High School students who battled opiate addiction.

“We were meant for our paths to cross and we were meant to come together,” said Toppings.

Soon their group, a club no one wants to be in, grew. They call themselves the “JoCo Angels.”

Parents who lost children to the opioid epidemic, along with Johnston County EMS and recovered addicts, all working together to raise awareness.

“For us, if we could save one life, just one life that would mean the most,” said Roxie Bennett.

Roxie and Eddie Bennett’s oldest son also died of an overdose in 2017.

Bennett says his son was at the top of his class.

“The night that he passed away he was in our room, on our bed talking to us,” said Bennett.  “Two hours later, our youngest son comes upstairs and says ‘Dad, come down.’  He wouldn’t tell me what he saw.  He got me downstairs and pushed the door open.  My 18-year-old son was dead on the floor.”

Other parents, like Phyllis Bryant, have a child in active addiction.

“It’s a one day at a time thing. I still, and probably always will, am waiting for that dreaded phone call that he’s OD’d and he’s somewhere and I can’t help,” said Bryant.

Savanna Lewis with Johnston County EMS, says they respond to overdoses daily.

“Unfortunately sometimes we get to them and it’s too late. There’s nothing we can do if someone has been down for too long.  That’s the sad part that we see all the time.  It’s not just one a day or once a week.  It’s everyday that we see it,” Lewis said.

What the JoCo Angels are experiencing is a snapshot of a larger problem across North Carolina.

Gov. Roy Cooper says more than 1,700 North Carolinians died of an opioid overdose in 2018, a five percent decrease from 2017.

Although it’s the first time those numbers have dropped in dropped in five years, the JoCo Angels say there is still work to be done.

So far they have provided EMTs with resource lists to hand out when they respond to an overdose.

Later this month, they will host a workshop to teach parents about red flags, like erratic behavior and increased depression, that could mean their child is using drugs. 

“The things were learned about the hard way, we want to share with other parents so they can see some of the warning signs so they don’t dismiss them like I did,” said Toppings.

The group plans to speak with the U.S. Attorney General’s office “Heroin Education Action Team,” to share resources in Johnston County.

“It’s time to get mad and face this monster head on. As a community we can do it, but we need to come together,” said Bryant.

By turning their pain into purpose, they hope to make a difference and a legacy for their sons.

“This is the burden that’s on us,” said Bennett.  “I can’t let my son die in vain.”

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