OXFORD, N.C. (WNCN) — Along a road on the border of Vance and Granville counties is a tree decorated in blue, gold, and red Christmas tree ornaments. While they shine in the sun, they each represent a dark moment and the life of someone lost to the opioid epidemic.
“Every single one of them, their lives mattered,” said Patricia Drewes.
Four years ago, Drewes lost her daughter, 24-year-old Heaven Leigh, to fentanyl. She left behind a two-year-old son.
“He’ll never remember his mother, only what I tell him about her, the pictures I show him of her. He’ll never receive a Christmas present from his mother,” Drewes said.
Debra Smiley is placing the ornaments with names on a tree outside her home. Each one represents someone whose death involved fentanyl, which includes her son Craig.
“It’s been three years since my son died and I really do miss him,” said Smiley.
Smiley is hand writing names of people who were killed by fentanyl. She’s put out a call for people to submit names of their own lost loved ones.
“I’ve had several names on Facebook and some people have text me their children’s names and yes—send all the names you want. I’ll put them on the tree,” said Smiley.
State data shows in 2020, more than 70 percent of overdoses involved fentanyl. Data from the North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner’s Office show a 300 percent increase in deaths involving the drug between 2016 and 2020.
“No, we’re not just going to accept that. It’s time for moms across the country, dads, to stand up and demand justice,” said Drewes.
As part of the Forgotten Victims of North Carolina organization, Drewes is pushing for more prosecutions for the crime of death by distribution. Enacted three years ago, the law aims to hold dealers accountable when drugs they provide lead to a death.
Like so many, Drewes said her daughter didn’t know the drug she was given contained fentanyl.
“They think they got an oxy or Xanax or Percocet and they’re dying,” she said.
She says parents needs to talk to their children about the dangers of fentanyl because what happened to her family can happen to anyone.
“Never say not my child. I never thought it would be my child but here I am,” Drewes said.