Friends, family members remember loved ones lost to addiction

By Mark Wolfenbarger | Tribune Staff

Published: October 29, 2015

Updated: October 29, 2015 at 10:50 PM

Heads are bowed for prayer during the NOPE Candle Light Vigil Thursday night at Hillsborough High School. JASON BEHNKEN / STAFF

Heads are bowed for prayer during the NOPE Candle Light Vigil Thursday night at Hillsborough High School. JASON BEHNKEN / STAFF

TAMPA — It’s been almostsfive years, but Mary Matuch’s pain still lingers.

It was Christmas Day in 2010 when Mutuch’s daughter, Sara Tran, died after overdosing on opioids and Xanax.

“For me, it’s still like it happened yesterday,” Matuch said of her 23-year-old daughter. “I want to honor her somehow.”

Matuch was one of hundreds of people who gathered at Hillsborough High School on Thursday night for a candlelight vigil to honor the thousands of Americans who die each year of a drug overdose.

Tampa is one of more than 50 cities holding a National Candlelight Vigil this week in an effort to erase the stigma associated with drug addiction and remember the estimated 30,000 Americans who die every year from drug overdose. The Florida-based Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force, Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Public Schools sponsor the local vigil.

The event was held in the dimly lit school auditorium, where a projection screen flashed some of the pictures adorning the adjoining lobby’s walls.

Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said heroin is becoming popular again and the prescription drug epidemic still exists. Drug addicts, she said, need community support.

“Until we know what causes addiction, we’ve got to do everything we can with the information we have today to stop this scourge of drug and alcohol abuse,” she said.

Lynne Knowles, president of NOPE of Hillsborough, lost her daughter, Jamie Godette-Church, to a heroin overdose at 23. Through the vigil, Knowles said, she can honor her daughter each year while building a bond with others who have experienced loss to drug addiction.

“I think all the families that come here get to meet one another and know that they’re not alone,” she said. “It’s quite a community we’re trying to build here; for all of us to come together to support one another.”

Recovering drug addict Tom Wentz told the crowd he went from job to job across the country to feed his addiction of 20 years and watched some of his friends die from overdoses. Wentz he said he once had a wife, children and a business but lost them all.

Wentz said the only friends he had during his years of addiction were those who shared a common habit: drugs. That changed six years ago, Wentz said, when he got clean.

“Today, my friends are there for me because they want to know I’m doing OK,” Wentz said.

After the indoor assembly, attendees gathered on the schools front lawn, where they lit candles and formed a circle around the flag pole.

Before the event began, family members of those who died from drug overdose roamed the auditorium’s lobby and looked at the photographs adorning the room’s walls, stopping to read the biographies below each photograph.

The photographs were provided by friends and family members of those who died, Knowles said.

“Anyone who’s lost someone can go on and add their picture, add a memorial message, and we will add them to our wall,” Knowles said.

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