An Ascension Parish mother hopes to use son’s death to save others

     Everyday in America, 129 people die from drug overdose. It’s a statistic that most Americans may be unfamiliar, but for one Ascension Parish family, one of their own has fallen into the grim number, making the death toll an eerie reality.

     Chris Champagne of Gonzales, was known as a talented musician and scholar. He was a graduate of East Ascension High School and Southeastern Louisiana University, where he attended on a dual choir and band scholarship. The 36-year-old drummer, carpenter and father was overwhelmingly appreciated by his community and well-liked, but even with his acclaim, he fought addiction for many years.

     On March 9, Chris lost his battle when he had a heart attack from apparent drug use.

     The Champagne family said while they could have kept secret Chris’ cause of death, not sharing the full truth wouldn’t allow their dearly departed’s passing to help another family.

     “If I can keep another mother from losing her child, I’ll do what I need to do,” said his mother, Mildred Solar.

     “There is so much misunderstanding about drug use, and people begin to hate the individual because of the drug use,” she said. “It’s not them – it’s the addiction, it’s a disease.”

     The family made no haste in opening up to their community. Unable to handle the spontaneous costs of a funeral for Chris, his brother Mike Champagne started an online fundraiser for $10,000. Within 19 hours, the community had raised $416 more than the funding goal – within four days, $11,501 had been raised.

     “We’re really, really humbled about it – to see how the community has responded,” Champagne said.

     The family said they intend to use to excess amount to raise awareness on drug addiction, and hopefully found an organization in Chris’ honor, with an emphasis on helping families break addiction. It’s work that Chris had already started. Just one day before his passing, a friend he was mentoring checked herself in to rehabilitation, upon his urging. According to family, Chris had been trying to kick his own addiction.

     “You could see how he had stepped back – you could tell he was trying,” Champagne said. “We know that he was trying.”

     Champagne and Solar both said that addiction should not be stigmatized into an attack on the addict, as it can happen to the best of people. 

     “He was a wonderful guy – an extremely talented musician and carpenter. Everything he did, he was good at it,” Champagne said. “Heroin is killing people – it’s all over Ascension Parish. If addiction could touch him, it could touch anybody.”

     Heroin use in the United States has skyrocketed, spreading to include groups who previously were less likely to abuse the drug, with 90 percent of new users being white suburbians, and 4 out of 5 users starting on prescription drugs before moving towards cheaper, easier to access heroin.

     Data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that heroin use increased 63 percent between 2002 and 2013, and heroin-related overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled over the same time period. In 2013 an estimated 517,000 people reported that they had used heroin in the last year or had a heroin-related dependence, a 150 percent increase from 2007. More than 8,200 people died of heroin-related overdose in 2013, according to national surveys published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

     And the numbers keep climbing, while families riddle themselves on how to care for loved ones with addiction.

     “Ultimately, it’s probably multi-faceted – love the person, hate the addiction,” Champagne said. “This is for the families – do everything that you can to help that person. Do the right thing for the person and hopefully, guys like Chris, who are on the cuff, will stay away from [drugs].”

     Champagne said every person in his family offered Chris some form of intervention, but Solar said she believed that he still felt like he had no where to turn.

     “We need to open this line of communication for families,” Solar said. “Chris was a phenomenal person, but the disease was a horrible demon. We need to let people know that just because your child uses drugs – it doesn’t mean they’re bad – just give them an avenue to get help. Open that line of communication.”

     While not sure of the process, Solar said she fully intends to create some sort of support group. She said that families have already started to reach out to her to share solidarity from the loss of their respective children, to commending her on the family’s honesty, to confirming the need for a support group.

     “If we can make this happen, then my son’s death will not have been in vain,” she said. “My son OD’d – he had an addiction – addiction killed him.”

      The CDC concludes that comprehensive interventions need to happen at the federal and state levels, and health care providers need to follow best practices to prescribe pain killers responsibly.

     The Champagne family is still collecting donations at gofundme.com/abtnrydv, with plans to bring about addiction awareness. Champagne’s services were held Monday, and he is buried at Galvez Pentacostal Church Cemetery.