MANSFIELD -- Traci Willis was 17-years-old when her life was shattered.
Mike, her oldest brother, had been in town for just 24 hours to clean out his childhood bedroom after accepting a job in South Carolina. The next day, her father told Willis her brother had overdosed on opioids in a parking lot while hanging out with a childhood friend.
"He was my favorite. He was my role model, and I always felt in his shadow," she said. "He was 23 when he passed away."
In 1999, 16,849 opioid-related deaths were counted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In 2017, 70,237 deaths related to opioids were tallied.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and more, according to the NIDA.
Willis and her family spent years grieving from the loss of their loved one. They went to family counseling events and memorials for the those who fell victim to the deadly addiction. Eventually, Willis discovered a passion for social work. She is studying for her masters degree in social work in an effort to aid those who wish to recover.
In 2012, Willis hosted the first International Overdose Awareness Day in Ohio.
"It was small and more like a memorial," Willis said.
This year's event is on Aug. 31 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Richland Academy of the Arts. It will act as a fundraiser for the Starfish Project of Richland County. One can also donate to the Starfish Project of Richland County.
Last year's event was held at Relax, It's Just Coffee, but Willis said they were over capacity and needed a new space.
"Last year was more of a celebration of recovery," Willis said, acknowledging the event partner, Starfish Project of Richland County.
Starfish Project, a non-profit organization created by concerned-community members who provide funds to help individuals with a wide variety of life-controlling problems (such as drug addiction) to participate in the Teen Challenge Program. The goal is to obtain a healthy life of recovery and spirituality. Over the past three years, more than 400 clients have gone through treatment.
"When we first started it was more of a memorial, but by last year, people knew it was a problem," Willis said. "But people don't always know about those who recover. It's not something that is always voiced."
The celebration includes local musicians and artists working with people who have spent at least one year in recovery from addiction.
Last year, local musician Aurelio Diaz, performed a song about hope and a person with an addiction named Erika. Another performer, Jillian Caudill, performed a song for Jessica about how her recovery inspired her child and son-in-law to get clean.
"I think it makes it more real," Willis said. "I think the way an artist is able to interpret that person's (journey) is something we can all relate to. We all haven't experienced it, but we can pay tribute to it and recognize what their strengths are."
Artists this year are, Atohi Sayja Nelson, Keagan Nicholaides, Eric Phillips, Allison Lindsay, Sarah Goff, Diaz and Rachel Justice.
Diaz, whose stage name is Chico's Brother, said his experience last year taught him more about the journey to recovery.
"Writing the song about Erika really introduced me to a different type of everyday struggle that others experience," he said. "The pressures she experienced from friends and family who were trying to sabotage her recovery opened my eyes to the pitfalls that many face when trying to change their lives.
"Meeting Erika and writing a song about her triumphs taught me how to really respect those who are fighting for a second chance."
For rapper Allison Lindsay, who goes by AlliCat when performing, the experience was a reminder of those she knew who had fallen victim -- but also gave her hope.
"Getting to know Evelyn has been an experience for sure -- mostly because it reopened old wounds dealing with my own military comrades that have at one point attempted to or had successfully taken their lives by overdose," Lindsay said. "Hearing her experience and actually being able to, in a way, celebrate with her as she has recently graduated from her program, has definitely given me a new outlook on how people cope with life and how we handle the choices that we make.
"I’m just really proud of everything that she’s accomplished since she’s begun her journey to recovery, and I wish her nothing but the best."