DECATUR — Austin Wells knows it sounds odd when he says he would not give the gift of recovery to those suffering from addiction.
Yet there’s a good reason Wells told that to a crowd of more than 100 people at Fairview Park on Saturday. The Mount Zion native has been clean for 13 months after struggling for years with a heroin addiction, and he said that gift of recovery would rob a person of something vital toward getting clean.
“I wouldn’t want to rob you of the journey of getting clean on your own,” Wells said. “Everybody's journey is different, and you need that journey.”
Wells and hundreds of others came to the park for the 6th annual Overdose Awareness 5K/Walk. Paired with the walk/run was a ceremony for those who have suffered the effects of the opioid epidemic, which saw speeches from family members of those who died and those who have struggled with substance use themselves.
The event was created six years ago by Kathy and Mike Burkham after the accidental overdose of their son Tyler Yount in 2009.
Speaking Saturday, Mike Burkham said the goal of the event remains the same: remember those who lost their lives, but also celebrate the lives of those who survived.
"It's remembering the past, but also celebrating the life of those who we have lost and what they meant to us," he said.
Those who lost their lives to addiction were memorialized throughout the Fairview Park Pavilion, whether with their names on the shirts of those attending, or with a table adorned with the names and photos of loved ones who have died from an overdose.
Organizers for the event include the Tyler Yount Foundation, Decatur Police Department, Macon County Sheriff's Office and Heritage Behavioral Health Center. About 200 people pre-registered for the event, and Burkham said he was expecting over 300 people to attend the 5K and the post-race ceremony.
Saturday was the first Overdose Awareness 5K since it was announced that Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett will invest $30 million to construct a 17-acre campus of facilities to help people with drug addiction and bring together social services. The facility is aimed at serving primarily low- and moderate-income residents and will greatly expand the amount of help available in the community.
Kathy Burkham said she can still remember when Buffett first told her and the family his plan for the facility earlier this year. Too overcome with emotions to cry, Burkham said she immediately hugged Buffett and has continued to thank him for the donation to this day.
“That was the best day that I can tell you I’ve had in the little over nine years since Tyler died,” Burkham said.
Buffett, who was appointed sheriff in September, is the oldest son of billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett. In recent years, his foundation has given millions to Decatur-area causes and organizations, including law enforcement and social service agencies.
Officials from both Heritage and Crossing Healthcare, which will own and operate the campus facility, were at Saturday's event, and they stressed the need for partnerships between the health, law enforcement and social service communities to take on addition.
“It’s a never-ending battle," said Drey Church, the program manager of substance use services at Heritage.
Troy Pulliam, who acted as MC on Saturday, knows too well about the never-ending battle.
After being clean for 3½ years, Pulliam said some problems in his personal life led to a relapse earlier this year. He described it as the darkest time in his life, as he spent weeks in his apartment without going outside, ashamed that his friends and family may learn he had relapsed.
But Pulliam said Kathy Burkham and others refused to give up on him, and as of Saturday, he has been clean for six months. He said spiritual, physical and emotional health are the three things he has worked to improve in order to strengthen his resolve to fight his addiction.
“Today, I can look in the mirror and be comfortable with what I see,” Pulliam said. “And that’s amazing considering the life I’ve lived as an addict.”
Funds from the event will go to purchase naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses that is most commonly sold under the brand name Narcan. The foundation supplies law enforcement in Macon County, as well as private individuals, with Narcan. It also provides free training on how to use it.
A case of Narcan, which includes 96 does, can cost about $3,600, Mike Burkham said. Previous 5Ks have raised between $7,000 to $8,000.
Burkham said he has seen some of the national conversations question the use of Narcan, with some pundits wondering if it encourages opioid use by reducing the risk of death or more should be done to prevent those who receive Narcan from immediately going out to use more opioids.
For him, what is important is giving people another chance.
“Our philosophy is to keep people alive for one more day, and maybe they’ll make a better decision,” Burkham said. “The first requirement for getting help is being alive.”