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Johnston County mom who lost daughter to opioids shares her story with children

The JoCo Angels are a group of parents who have lost children to opioids. They are now speaking to middle school students about addiction.

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Mandy Mitchell
, WRAL reporter
BENSON, N.C. — Every day, Danette Jernigan puts on a necklace. It's a locket with a picture of her daughter, Dakota. In the photo she's young and smiling.

Jernigan lost Dakota to an opioid overdose last year.

"On May 23, 2019, I got one of the toughest calls I have ever gotten in my life," Jernigan said.

A toxicology report after Dakota's death revealed she had Fentanyl in her system.

After Dakota's death, Jernigan joined a network of Johnston County parents and families called JoCo Angels. The group offers support for affected families and raises awareness of opioid addiction.

Recently, Jernigan shared her story with young students at McGee's Crossroads Middle School. She began by talking about Dakota's days in middle school and how much she loved spending time with friends.

"She was very fun-loving. She enjoyed to have a good time," Jernigan said.

According to Jernigan, Dakota went through middle school and most of high school with a fun-loving personality, but as she approached her senior year, she began to feel depressed and suffered from anxiety. That led to self-medication.

One Xanax eventually led to heroin and a three-year battle with addiction.

"I never knew that on the inside she was sad," Jernigan said. "She never communicated those things to me."

Statistics show that five people in North Carolina die each day from opioid overdoses, and it's a habit that can start early.

"A lot of drug addicts are starting at the middle school age," said Bobby Higdon, U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of North Carolina. "It is a shocking problem that we have but it is in our middle schools."

Each of the parents in the JoCo Angels group has a similar story to Jernigan's. They know what it feels like to notice a change in their teenagers, and they have all experienced the ultimate pain of losing a child.

Their experiences have inspired them to speak to younger children.

"It is hard to talk to them because they are a bit young, but it's a good time to start laying the groundwork," Jernigan said. "They are reaching an age where they can be influenced, so I think it's important to teach them they don't have to do things to fit in."

JoCOo Angels has partnered with the U.S. Attorney's office to bring their message to more middle schools and high schools around Johnston County and to other parts of eastern North Carolina. You can monitor their page for updates.


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