LARGO, Florida — Hundreds of people packed Largo Central Park Wednesday night to remember lives lost to drugs or alcohol abuse as part of the 10th annual NOPE (Narcotics Overdose Prevention Education) candlelight vigil. 

  • Many attendees lost loved ones to drugs, alcohol abuse
  • Speakers shared heartbreaking, inspiring stories
  • More information about NOPE Pinellas

Many of the people in attendance either lost a loved one to drugs and alcohol or are battling addiction themselves. Speakers shared both heartbreaking and inspiring stories.

Christian Benning, 18, had a little bit of both. 

He explained how he came home from school at the age of 15 to find his mother’s lifeless body.

“I called out to my mom and she wasn’t answering, so I started knocking on her bedroom doors. Nothing,” Benning said. “My grandfather arrived and I was just kind of fed up with it and I kicked the door in and ended up finding my mom deceased on the floor, overdosed.”

Benning considers himself one of the lucky ones who learned early on just how dangerous of a disease drug addition is. He said he wanted the hundreds of people attending the event Wednesday night to learn about it too.

“For most people I’m hoping it inspires them to make a change before it’s too late,” he said. “If I was able to go back and look my mom in the face and tell her look at the aftermath of your actions, this is what happens. Hopefully it’ll change people for the better.”

Mission to change lives

NOPE Pinellas founders Laurie and Mark Serra created the organization to honor the lives of people like their son, Matthew, who died of an overdose at 28. They also made it their mission to work to help people change their lives for the better.

“I don’t think our community really gets what an epidemic it is and how important it is that we talk about it," Laurie said. "It shouldn’t be 'why me?' it should be 'why not me?' It’s our obligation to talk about it.”

“Our son Matthew, who died at the age of 28 from prescription drug overdose ... there were a lot of things we didn’t get along the way," she explained. "It didn’t start there. It started when he was 13 with weed and alcohol and then it progressed from there.”

Now ten years later, they’re still trying to educate the public and provide support to those in their shoes.

“Families when they’re battling addiction in their homes, there’s a shame,” Laurie said. “You feel 'what should I have done?' 'What could I have done?' 'What didn’t I do?' and the reality is addiction is a disease and we didn’t get that and we’ve got to get over the shame and again, that communication.” 

Ways to fight back the trend

Laurie told us every year for the last ten years they’ve held this event the number of drug and alcohol-related deaths in this area increases. She says education, talking to your kids early and funding for rehab instead of jail are some of the best ways to fight this growing epidemic. 

Law enforcement officials say the number of drug overdose fatalities continues to rise, with more lives being lost to overdose than car accidents and homicides combined in the Tampa Bay Area.