SANTA ROSA BEACH — Laura Sparks vividly remembers the day five months ago when authorities knocked on her door to tell her that her 23-year-old son had overdosed and died.
She said she lost her mind. It was a tragedy she had been trying to avoid for years.
“Jay should not be dead,” Laura said. “He should be in jail.”
Jason “Jay” Sparks was struggling with a drug addiction for years before this death. His dad — an Army veteran — was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2010. For 17 months, Jay and his family watched him slowly die.
Once Jay lost his “rock,” he became angry at the world and began to spiral out of control. Laura spent seven years of her life trying to save him from addiction. Now, she spends her time trying to bring awareness to a drug problem that is affecting the community.
“I’m just now getting my voice,” Laura said. “But I don’t have it every day.”
Jay grew up in the small town of Bruce. His parents ran the youth program at their local church to help disadvantaged children know what "love" and a "real family" looked like.
Although Laura and her husband only had two biological kids, they were parents to many children in the community by providing them with food, shelter and a stable environment.
When Jay was dealing with the loss of his father, Laura was there to help him, just as she helped all her “kids.” That meant sending him to jail so he wouldn’t harm himself or others.
Sitting in the living room of her home in Santa Rosa Beach where she now lives alone, Laura remembers both the good and bad times with her son.
“Sober Jay was a completely different person,” she said. “He texted me every night if he wasn't here and said, ‘Good night, I love you.’ He even had an alert on his phone ... that said ‘Call mom’ every day at 4 p.m.”
But there were times Laura didn’t recognize her son.
Sometimes he would “cuss her out” and threaten her when he was high. She stuck to her convictions and continued to seek help for Jay, who regularly told her he wanted to get better. That included calling his probation officers when she knew he was out of control again. When Jay’s probation was violated, Laura hoped he would get arrested and receive the medical help he needed. However, he was released and told to return to the office April 10.
Jay never returned to the probation office. Instead, he continued to feed his addiction. One week later, he overdosed in a home in Niceville, surrounded by people who didn’t even know his name.
“You may be thinking it was his choice and he was junkie and deserved to die,” Laura said. “But ... how would you feel if, instead of him dying, he had instead gotten high and done something horrible?”
Laura knows Jay’s story is just one of many. Stories like hers are far too common in the community, and she hopes to enact change.
Laura wants to convince state legislators to sign a bill that requires people to call authorities if they see someone overdosing — something she said wasn’t done for her son and might have saved him. She also strives to end the stigma around mental illness and addiction.
“There’s so much judgment, and that makes you not want to talk about it,” she said. “That’s part of the reason you don’t hear about it. The shaming needs to go away.
“If my story can keep one kid from dying, I’m willing to do that.”