EFFINGHAM — Friends and family members gathered Saturday night at Evergreen Hollow Park in Effingham to remember those whose lives were cut short by a drug overdose.
Dondi Clay of Memphis, Missouri, organized the candlelight vigil as part of International Drug Overdose Awareness Day. Clay’s daughter, Elizabeth Buening, died at the age of 24 on May 1 in Effingham County from a heroin overdose.
“She’d been battling heroin and it caught up with her,” said Clay. “At first, I wasn’t going to do anything this year (with International Overdose Awareness Day) but I knew I just had to do something.”
Clay said she wanted to be a part of the annual global event held on Aug. 31. Friends and family came to Effingham from Missouri, Iowa, Florida and California to be part of the event.
Part of the purpose of the event is to show that overdose deaths are preventable and also to give people a safe environment to mourn, without feeling guilt or shame. The international event also acknowledges the grief felt by families and friends remembering those who have died or had a permanent injury as a result of a drug overdose.
Friends and family remembered Elizabeth and her “wonderful smile that would light up the room.” The mother of a young son, Elizabeth’s obituary said she had a natural skill with cosmetology and had aspired to go back to school to pursue a career in it.
Elizabeth’s cousin, Kenzi Blake, 28, came from Tarpon Springs, Florida, to attend the vigil.
“It’s only been a few months, so this is still fresh for all of us,” said Blake. “It’s good for us to get together and remember her. I keep thinking what she’d be doing right now. She’d walk in with her smile and give us all a hard time, like she does.”
Blake said people may never know who could be battling an addiction. It could be someone’s mom, or someone’s little brother or sister, she said.
“Elizabeth was a great person and a great soul,” said Blake. “It’s really important to bring awareness about addiction. It can affect anyone. It’s important to be there and never give up on them.”
About 25 people lit candles and paper lanterns, which lifted to the sunset sky. Clay expected the first event to be small, but she hopes to add to the event each year.
The overdose awareness worldwide event, which began in Melbourne, Australia, in 2001, aims to raise awareness of overdoses and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death, according to its website.
Clay said she knows first-hand about addiction. Clay is now celebrating 18 years of sobriety. She struggled with addictions of alcohol, opioids and methamphetamine. She said it took her getting arrested to break her away from those demons.
“There are something like 200 overdose deaths a day in the U.S.,” said Clay. “That’s like an airplane full of people dying at once – every day.”
Clay said her daughter was a teenager who drank and smoked marijuana and her drug habit escalated. More than ever people need the opportunity to get professional help for addictions, Clay said.
“These overdoses are avoidable,” said Clay. “We need to get more treatment facilities open.”