KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — At least 436 people have died in Knox County from a drug-related overdose and for every death, there’s a family in mourning. Those families can keep their loved ones’ memory shining on the overdose memorial tree set up in front of the Knox County District Attorney General’s office.
Sharon Hajko, a member of the Knoxville Drug Overdose Support Group, said the holiday time is especially hard for families who have lost someone to an overdose.
“This time of year for us, um, knowing they didn’t make it through recovery and they passed away,” Hajko said.
Hajko lost her son in 2017 in an overdose. He was sober for six years before he relapsed and died. She said the memorial tree is very important. It highlights family members who died, but it also gives them a chance to remember the good times.
“He was a practical joker. So he would, no matter how tight you would wrap the presents, he always found a way to get into them and figure out what he got. Sometimes he would switch the tags on them just to make life interesting,” Hajko said with a smile.
Ever since her son Justin passed away, she’s put an ornament up on the memorial tree.
“I try to do things in honor of him. To remember him and remember the good things because it isn’t all about the addiction,” Hajko said.
She said the tree is placed in the perfect spot. Dozens of people walk by it each day, some of them going in and out of recovery court.
“I’m hoping that it hits home and if somebody is struggling, that maybe seeing a picture of someone they cared about that’s on this tree. Might make them think twice before they use, or make them think, ‘hey I need to get help,'” Hajko said.
This year, Hajko said they had to buy a bigger tree to fit all the ornaments. She said the decorations don’t even begin to show just how many people have died in the county from an overdose.
Hajko knows through her son’s experience, the holidays were also tough on people suffering from addiction. She said that’s why the Overdose Support Group does everything they can to bring awareness and share the love.
This year, the group made hygiene kits and donated them to a sober living community, they provided Thanksgiving for them and plan to do so on Christmas.
“We wanted them to know someone was thinking of them,” Hajko said.
Hajko said it’s heartbreaking to see even more ornaments added to the tree this year because that means even more families are mourning. She wants them to know they are not alone.
Hajko said the support group and tree are sponsored by the Knox County DA’s Office and Knoxville Police Department.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction and need help, call or text the Tennessee Redline at 800-889-9789 for confidential referrals.
The Overdose Memorial Tree will be up through the rest of the holidays.