(Photo by John Leos/Cronkite News)
PHOENIX – The Arizona advocacy group Sonoran Prevention Works commemorated International Overdose Awareness Day 2023 on Aug. 31, with a vigil at the Desert West Community Center in Phoenix. The group was founded in 2010 by people who had used drugs and wanted to help others by reducing harm, providing health services and creating safe spaces.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Arizona advocacy group that hosted a vigil in Phoenix that day. The correct name of the group is Sonoran Prevention Works. The story also misquoted Haley Coles, co-founder and executive director of Sonoran Prevention Works. Her quote should read: “There’s so much stigma associated with substance use and death from overdose that a lot of families say they can’t talk about it,” Coles said. “We want to create a space for those who have lost people to share that with other people.”
Photos and messages of loved ones were on display at the Desert West Community Center vigil. In Maricopa County, approximately 2,000 people died of drug overdose in 2021, according to statistics from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
Mourners pay their respects to those lost to overdose. “There’s so much stigma associated with substance use and death from overdose that a lot of families say they can’t talk about it,” says Haley Coles, 33, co-founder and executive director of Sonoran Prevention Works. “We want to create a space for those who have lost people to share that with other people.”
Sonoran Prevention Works Executive Director Haley Coles addresses the crowd of approximately 40 people attending the Overdose Awareness Day vigil. There had been 985 deaths caused by opioid overdose in Arizona as of Sept. 7, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. A disproportionate number of those deaths have been identified as Black, Indigenous and Hispanic, compared with population demographics. Coles says drug policy has been used as a weapon to marginalize people of color. “We try to work with Black, Indigenous and Latino communities to build curriculum that is culturally relevant, so that folks can talk to people in ways that make sense,” Coles said.
Steven Levin, 38, laughs with volunteers and employees of Sonoran Prevention Works while working an information and resource table. At the vigil, the organization provided free naloxone kits, fentanyl testing strips, HIV and hepatitis C onsite testing, and relaxation spaces for community members.
Leanna Monahan, 27, and her partner, Christian Menke, 27, volunteered to assemble naloxone kits, which include doses of the medication that rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Since 2017, Sonoran Prevention Works has distributed almost 800,000 naloxone doses in Arizona, which the group says has resulted in over 20,000 overdose reversals. Monahan began volunteering at Sonoran Prevention Works to meet a volunteer requirement for a degree in social work, but she has since changed her major to addiction psychology.
Doses of naloxone sit ready to be assembled into kits and distributed throughout the state. A 2022 study found Arizona to be the only state having a sufficient number of naloxone doses distributed in the community to reduce overdose fatalities, according to data collected in 2017. Despite this, more than five people a day die from opioid overdose in Arizona amid a statewide public health emergency, the Arizona Department of Health Services reports.
Danielle Manuel, 28, gets her blood taken for an HIV and hepatitis C test by Sonoran Prevention Works outreach tester Carly Stackhouse, 28. The sharing of needles during drug use is a significant contributor to the spread of blood-borne infections. Following 10 years of advocacy efforts by Sonoran Prevention Works and other groups, Arizona decriminalized syringe services programs in 2021, which allowed for needle exchange programs to operate in the open. “I’ve lost people to hepatitis C and AIDS-related complications from not having the tools that they needed,” says Haley Coles, co-founder of Sonoran Prevention Works. “It’s all policy that causes these preventable deaths.”
Annette and Steven Milroy talk with Sonoran Prevention Works co-founder Haley Coles. The Milroys’ son, Brandon, 23, died of an overdose eight months earlier. His father remembers him as always having a smile on his face and loving computers. “We needed somewhere where people would understand,” said Annette Milroy when asked about the importance of holding a vigil. “Life is an emotional roller coaster, it’s important to be around people who can feel the same thing.”
Danielle Kabella, 35, stands next to a memorial they made to honor their father, who passed away from an overdose. The memorial included the father’s favorite snacks, beer and PayDay candy bars. In 2021, more than 106,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States, continuing a decades-long increasing trend that began in the 1990s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Nisbeth Piceno, 29, points out her late husband Eli’s portrait displayed at the vigil. Eli died from a fentanyl overdose two years ago. “My heart is heavy,” Piceno said after seeing the faces in the room and hearing the names of those lost read aloud. After Eli’s death, she tattooed his name on her arm to commemorate his life.