BLOUNT COUNTY, Tenn. — Across the country, the days after Thanksgiving are a time to pull out the Christmas tree and start decorating for the holidays. In Blount County, families gathered to do exactly that, but they decorated a special tree.
The Christmas tree is meant to honor people who passed away due to substance abuse and drug overdoses. Dozens of people gathered at the Blount County Justice Center for the event. It started at 10 a.m.
"I think it's very important that we come together and allow our pain to be shared with others who are similar," said Tim Webb, who started the tradition.
So far in 2021, more than 100,000 people across the country have died due to a drug overdose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health leaders said the new milestone was partly the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a more dangerous drug supply.
During the holidays, families of those loved ones may take some time to grieve them and remember good times shared with them.
"The holidays are always hard," said Webb. "Thanksgiving through Christmas is especially hard because there's an empty chair at the table."
The tradition of decorating the special Christmas tree started 3 years ago. Since then, anyone who wanted to honor people who passed away could hang ornaments on the tree in their memory.
"It can happen to anyone," said Kali Niethammer, who placed an ornament in memory of her brother. "It doesn't have prejudice, and it was very unexpected.
Her brother passed away around 4 months ago of an accidental drug overdose, she said.
The tree is donated by a local Home Depot store and is placed outside the justice center. Organizers said that when people see the tree, they want people to know that the tree is more than a holiday decoration.
"I want them to realize that this tree represents loved ones, not your stereotypical drug addict," Webb said.