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Sharing the Importance of Addiction Awareness and Education

Addiction awareness is the key to unlocking prevention, support, and recovery.

By Lisa Bolton

On January 25th, 2019, my beautiful daughter Kerri Elizabeth Fernley lost her life to an accidental overdose – heroin laced with fentanyl – fentanyl poisoning. She was 26 years old and one of 3,021 people in the state of New Jersey that year to suffer a fatal opiate overdose.

Writing our story never, ever gets easier. What do you say? How much of it or how little of it do you tell? Whenever I tell her story, the biggest thing I focus on is HER. Not her disease, not how long she struggled with substance use disorder (SUD) or the countless rehabs she was in. My goal is that people know her for who she was.

All through her life, Kerri never ceased to amaze me. She took dance classes and drama classes. She was a Brownie, then a Girl Scout. Kerri enjoyed the beach, hiking, yoga, and fighting for just about any cause. She was an environmentalist and a humanitarian. She was a gifted writer and advocate. She loved school, Marine Biology and Psychology.

Kerri had this wonderful ability to make everything look like it was the most amazing thing you ever saw. Her enthusiasm and joy were contagious to anyone she encountered. And she will always be remembered as the girl who was willing to help anyone. She had learned that life was too short and to let the little things go. She understood the importance of forgiveness.

Kerri was also a fighter. She was not embarrassed easily, nor did she like to fail at anything. She was one of the strongest-willed people I ever met! She loved to be in charge, and she hated to be wrong about anything. She would put up quite the fight to prove she was right and was always ready to back it up! But Kerri was also fair, and she wanted to hear the other side too.

She wanted the world to see that addiction is a DISEASE not a choice. She wanted addiction awareness spread, for others to understand the reasons a 4.0 college graduate from a middle-class family, raised by parents who adored her and a family who would have moved Heaven and Earth for her, would turn to substances. And while I will never hear her voice again and she will never ask me what I think of something again, Kerri still needs me. She needs me to help her spread awareness, to help keep other mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and grandparents from feeling this pain, and to engage legislators and those in positions of power to help us in this fight.

I have created two 501(c)3 nonprofits. The first one is The Dandelion Project, which was born from an idea to honor my first born, Donald Jerald, who I lost at 19 weeks in 1989. Kerri and I had discussed ideas when I told her I wanted to create something to honor the memory of her brother. Someone mentioned what I wanted to do reminded them of how a dandelion spreads its seeds and suggested I call it “The Dandelion Project.” Kerri was up late drawing one night, something she did when she could not sleep. She sent me a picture of what she had just drawn, and it was a dandelion! I had never shared a possible name with her and I felt like it was a sign.

Today, I use her drawing as part of our logo for the Dandelion Project along with the handprints of both me and my youngest son, Kevin. Each handprint symbolizes the three children we have lost. DJ, my first born, Quinn, my beautiful 18-year-old stepdaughter who died from Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis on September 23rd, 2015, and my sweet angel Kerri who joined them in 2019. With the help of my stepdaughter Jamie, I believe Kerri would be proud. Our vision for The Dandelion Project has also changed: the organization’s mission statement is to provide support, education and resources to those who have suffered losses, who are raising grandchildren, and to help our youngest victims who’re struggling with mental health issues, including substance use disorder, navigate through trauma and recovery while spreading awareness and education throughout our communities.

The second 501(c)3 non- profit organization, which I co-founded along with Michelle Pepin of Picking Up The Pieces, is called M.U.T.E – Mothers United to Educate. Michelle and I are both mothers who have lost a child to substance use disorders/fentanyl poisonings. We are advocating and honoring our children and so many others lost to this epidemic. M.U.T.E is more than another “grief group.” We support others and welcome all those who support our mission to educate and save lives. M.U.T.E.’s mission statement is that we are committed to raising awareness and educating our communities about substance use disorder, addiction, mental health, and suicide.

I use my experience as an educator to ensure the missions of both organizations are met. Despite Kerri “knowing better” and being told “don’t do drugs,” addiction can happen to anyone, drugs do not discriminate. At her memorial service, I shared the last message from Kerri to the world: “Maybe the innocence of childhood is nothing more than the ignorance of life. As we get older, the events that have occurred in one’s life put life itself into a new perspective.”

Losing Kerri not only changed my life but who I am, she took an enormous piece of me with her. She also taught me to appreciate every moment and to take a stand. I will make sure her life and death are not in vain; her voice will be heard.

The Problem

The teen and young adult years are confusing, complicated and formative for everyone involved and with those factors come risks for mental health and substance use disorders. Research confirms that 9 out of 10 people with addiction began using an addictive substance before age 18.

The Solution

As Lisa and Kerri tell us, addiction awareness and education are critical. Understanding what’s happening socially and developmentally — and how it can intersect with substance use — is fundamental to setting the stage for healthier outcomes.

Take Action

Dive into our addiction e-books and guides

Preventing and addressing addiction is a learning process. In addition to the information and perspectives we make available to read online, the addiction education resources at the link below are designed to be printed, read at your convenience, and used as a frequent reference.