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Raising overdose awareness in Wilkes-Barre

A small group released a large number of black balloons in Public Square on Sunday, each balloon representing a life lost to an overdose in the area this past year.

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — The crowd that gathered on Sunday was relatively small, but for those who have lost loved ones to an overdose, the void is immeasurable.

"I want people to know that my sister was a very bright person. She was great," said Michael Silliman, who lost his sister to an overdose.

"This is still something that nobody talks about and this is still something that's shoved underneath the rug," said Lucy Simms.

Simms lost her son, George, to a drug overdose at the age of 24, nearly five years ago.

"I was away at work in New Hampshire," said Simms. "I had to hear it over the phone from the paramedics." 

In Wilkes-Barre's Public Square on National Black Balloon Day, Simms says letting go of balloons is easier than letting go of the guilt. 

"I know that I did the best that I could," she said, "but we still carry that as parents of lost children that we could have, should have, done better. I mean, I'm his mom. I should have known, I should have you know, did something differently."

Those remembering loved ones tell Newswatch 16 the number of overdose deaths has gone up in recent years.

"We've been doing this 12 years, and every year it increases," said Carol Coolbaugh, who facilitates Grief Recovery After Substance Passing (GRASP) meetings in the area. Coolbaugh lost her 29-year-old son to an overdose 12 years ago. 

Census Bureau data shows overdose deaths in Luzerne County jumped from 22 deaths in 2014 to 144 deaths the very next year.

"You're more likely to die from an overdose death in the United States than be hit by a car or killed by a gun," said Stefanie Wolownik, Prevention Education Specialist for Wyoming Valley Alcohol and Drug Services.

On Sunday, 208 balloons were released, one for every life lost in 2021. 

"There's 208 souls and the families that are left behind to have to deal with it, it's extremely, extremely difficult," said Coolbaugh.

But along with all those black balloons, a single white balloon was also released, offering a message of hope.

"Recovery does happen and can happen and there's so many resources out there," said Coolbaugh.

For the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline and more resources, click here.

For the NEPA Chapter of Grasp Facebook page, head here.

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