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Milwaukee recognizes International Overdose Awareness Day by memorializing lives lost

overdose awareness memorial tree
Kobe Brown
A Milwaukee family memorializing their lost loved one at the overdose awareness memorial tree.

The Milwaukee County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition is addressing Milwaukee’s drug epidemic and on Wednesday, August 31, the coalition marked International Overdose Awareness Day. Dozens of people gathered in Humboldt Park to honor survivors and to remember the people who lost their lives to overdoses.

Kobe Brown
International Overdose Awareness Day flags lining Humboldt Park stage.

"Today is about allowing family and friends of folks that have succumbed to the illness of addiction," said Aaron Lipski, the head chair of the Milwaukee County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalitionand also the city of Milwaukee’s fire chief.

He continued, "I want to just recognize that and offer condolences to those folks who have lost loved ones."

The city’s fire department plays a major role in addressing overdoses, often being the first responders to those in need.

Help kits come on every fire truck, ladder truck, paramedic units and every fire office, Lipski said.

If a person needs Narcan or fentanyl test strips, all of those resources are provided to keep a person alive, he added. The fire department also offers reprogramming, which can help people go from just surviving to living and thriving beyond addiction.

"One thing fire departments can offer that very, very few other agencies can offer is an instant brand recognition of trust and dependability. That just can't be found in too many places and that's hard earned," Lipski said.

By sheer numbers, he said, the opioid problem has become unavoidable.

More than 600 people died of a fatal overdose in 2021 in Milwaukee County, according to the county's overdose data. That’s up from 522 fatal overdoses in 2020.

Debbie Dillman, who was at the ceremony to honor her son Ben, understands what it's like to lose a loved one to a fatal overdose. Ben overdosed on a mixture of fentanyl and cocaine in December of 2017.

Kobe Brown
Memorial Quilt to honor lives lost

"I'm just here to honor him and the way too many lives lost in this epidemic, and encourage people to seek recovery and treatment, and just be with other people who understand what this loss is like for a mom and a family," Dillman said.

To families, she advises people to stay involved and stay aware. She said letting your loved ones know that you understand addiction is a disease and you're supportive of their recovery can save a life.

At the event, Dillman said she spent a lot of time at the memorial quilt — just one of the art installations to honor those who lost their life.

For her, it was an amazing way to honor people lost and those in recovery.

"To Ben, I would say I'm so proud of you. You and your efforts were neverending. You're the bravest person I know. I miss you," she said.

Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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