NEWARK, Ohio – Lisa Gordon reached for her son’s acoustic guitar and began to sing.

“Son, your work on earth is done, go to heaven a-shoutin’.”

She’s been sharing “Go Rest High on That Mountain” by Vince Gill in some fashion since 2009, when her son, Corey, died at the age of 23 of a heroin overdose. And last week, she was singing it to those who attended the 9th annual Overdose Awareness Day gathering at the Canal Street Market in downtown Newark. 

Those who attended the event comforted one another with hugs and clasped hands. Credit: Andrew Theophilus

Surrounding Gordon in a semi-circle were others who have lost loved ones to overdoses. Tears flowed as some grieving family members interlocked hands and buried their heads in the shoulders of others.

Gordon, of Heath, performed on Aug. 31 during the event organized by a team of volunteers from Newark Homeless Outreach and Ohio CAN (Change Addiction Now) led by Patricia Perry of Newark. The event is held each year to honor the memory of those who have died of an overdose or substance-use-related issue. 

Pastor Dave Pennington opened with prayer and a reading of a proclamation from Newark Mayor Jeff Hall, who was not in attendance. 

Twenty-eight organizations participated. They represent a wide range of services including treatment providers. Various speakers offered creative commentary about their experience with substance use disorder and overdose. They included poets from a class taught by David Ruderman at the Licking County Day Reporting Program, which provides offenders with a restorative alternative to incarceration. Attendees shared a mix of somber remembrances of lives lost and the resolve to continue the work to address this crisis.

With overdoses in Licking County on the rise during the past decade, Perry, co-founder of the Newark Homeless Outreach and Licking County coordinator for Ohio CAN, said the event is important for raising awareness about overdoses and substance use disorder. 

Patricia Perry offers a hug to one of the speakers at the Overdoes Awareness Day event in downtown Newark on Aug. 31. Credit: Andrew Theophilus

Perry said that while the number of supporters for harm reduction and those who have lost someone to overdose has increased dramatically since she started the rally back in 2014, the purpose has stayed the same.

“The noticeable difference between the first rally and now,” Perry said, “is the number of resources we have available – and unfortunately, the number of pictures that are on the table,” referring to a memorial featuring photos of those who died from an overdose. 

According to data from the Licking County Coroner, 256 people in the county have died because of an overdose during the past six years. In 2022, 58 members of the Licking County community died of an overdose.

Deb Dingus, executive director of Licking County United Way, said that it is clear that since the first overdose awareness event nine years ago, more people in Licking County know someone who has died. 

“It’s going to continue to get worse until we do something significant,” Dingus said. “We continue to battle stigma and continue to battle people who don’t know about the disease.”

She said that Licking County should use all the tools that are available, including harm reduction, which is a public health approach to mitigating the health risks of substance use.

“I want to be hopeful that our county will embrace and access every evidence-based program,” she said.

Dennis Cauchon, President of Harm Reduction Ohio, said that Ohio is at about the same place that it has been since 2020 – with a pace of about 5,000 overdose deaths a year. Opioid-only overdoses are down and overdoses that involve both stimulants, like cocaine or methamphetamines, and opioids are up. Overdose deaths of white people continue to decline. While overdose deaths of Black people continue to soar, Cauchon said.

“There are some short-term ways to try to reduce death and address harms, naloxone being one of them,” Cauchon said. “But as long as you have drug prohibition, you’re going to have adulterated drugs and you’re going to have high overdose levels.”

In addition to working to address the overdose crisis through policy change, Granville-based Harm Reduction Ohio is the largest distributor in the state of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, last year distributing 84,000 doses.

Widespread distribution of naloxone in Ohio started in 2012 with the advent of state-funded Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone), only three years after Lisa Gordon’s son passed away.

Music was a central part of his life, Gordon said. As Corey grew up, it was always the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin or Eric Clapton blasting through his speakers. 

Nestor Matthews and others released balloons in memory of those who died. Credit: Andrew Theophilus

Corey taught himself how to play the guitar when he was 16. Music quickly became a point of connection between Corey and his mother, who also learned to play around the same time. The two would often play together, and she honors him today by playing her late son’s spruce Stafford guitar.

Gordon said that prior to Corey’s death on April 28, 2009, he had not been using heroin for nearly four years, was close to graduating from college, and had just moved into his first apartment.

“In an instant, it seemed, one night changed the lives of all those he touched,” Gordon said.

“When he passed away, it felt like my passion for music did, too. It took me a few years before I picked up his guitar, realizing that he’d want me to be playing for him, that his spirit was alive in the music,” Gordon said.

Sharing Corey’s love of music with the world is Gordon’s mission. 

In the cool evening last Thursday, attendees moved from under the Canal Market canopy to the lawn beside the old Licking County Jail. They carried purple and white balloons to release in honor of those who died. 

Gordon stood with her granddaughter as Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” played from the sound system.

“That’s so funny,” Gordon said to her granddaughter. “Corey always played this song; he loved it.”

As they sent their balloon into the sky, it joined a constellation of others, each one punctuating the clear blue sky.

Naloxone is available in Licking County through the Newark Homeless Outreach (10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays at the corner of Buena Vista and East Main streets), online and in-person from the Licking County Health Department, and online through Harm Reduction Ohio.