TAMPA, Fla. - Families and friends who've lost loved ones to drugs and alcohol came together on Thursday night at Hillsborough High School for a vigil. They're working to bring awareness to the opioid crisis and support those who are struggling.
Pictures of more than 500 people throughout the state of Florida who have lost their lives due to opioid addictions were posted at the entrance of the school auditorium. One of the faces was 14-year-old Spencer Foster.
His mother, Michele Phillips, said she had no idea her middle schooler was struggling with addiction.
The only suspicion came prior to his death, when she learned he had experimented with marijuana.
"He was in all kinds of sports programs, so we thought we had him well diverted. We didn't suspected that there was more going on," said Phillips.
She didn't learn what her son was taking until after getting a phone call that he had died from an overdose.
"It was a very high level of Oxycodones, opioid and alcohol, an excessive amount. A deadly amount," explained Phillips.
Family members of victims share the same grief and the same desire to make sure no other family has to suffer through the same pain. "It's no longer the drug dealer who's in the alley trying to sell your kids drugs. The drug dealers live within us," said Angela McHenry.
McHenry's son, Joseph, was 19-years-old when he died. He started using Xanax as a student at Sickles High School, and she said eventually the addiction made him feel so hopeless that he took his own life in 2015.
McHenry is one of many parents now sharing her story through Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education (NOPE). Those who've lost loved ones to opioid abuse speak at high schools across Hillsborough County. "If it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody. Joseph was raised in a Christian home. We brought him up well. He had good morals and he was a great kid," said McHenry.
While their loved ones are gone, family and friends are making sure they are never forgotten.
A candlelight vigil was held Thursday night to represent the victims' lights shining on.
Parents, like Phillips, encourage other parents to talk to their children more often, and pay attention to the small signs of drug abuse, such as a sudden lack of interest and school or sports.
Parents shared that it's important to reassure children they can talk openly without fear of getting into trouble in order to better help them.
For more information on NOPE, visit http://www.nopehillsborough.org/