COVINGTON, Ky. — Gabi Deaton worked to make space for the photographs she placed on the shelves that barely seemed able to support the weight of it all.

There was the father who loved Christmas the most. The mother who was a nurse for nearly 30 years.

The sister with a hug that would make you feel safe. The brother who had mastered skateboarding.

A series of stark reminders that addiction can touch anyone's life.

What You Need To Know

  • Gabi Deaton started The Black Balloon Project in 2019

  • Each year, she photographs the loved ones of those lost to drug overdose

  • The families and friends hold a photo of the person they lost, along with a black balloon

  • Deaton held a photography exhibit for the project in Covington last Saturday 

“It's not just in certain neighborhoods,” said Deaton, as she prepared her photography exhibit at Life Learning Center in Covington Saturday.  

Members of the public view photographs from The Black Balloon Project on display at Life Learning Center in Covington Saturday. (Spectrum News 1/Jonathon Gregg)

Each of the 79 people remembered in the photographs died of a drug overdose, most within the last ten years.

Deaton began The Black Balloon Project in 2019, photographing the friends and family in Kentucky and Ohio left to hold their loved one’s photo or ashes, along with a black balloon.

Some stand at their grave, in the place where they died or somewhere they loved. 

"I think for some, it is a form of healing to honor that person and then for others, I think that it is a way to advocate and use their pain for strength and to try to take what they’ve been through and hopefully help prevent somebody else from going through the same thing," Deaton explained.

She takes the photos for free and gets to know the families and their pain.

Tami Boblitt drove more than two hours from Bardstown to be at the exhibit. Her 30-year-old son, Robert “Chase” Linton has been gone nine months. 

A photograph of the family of Robert “Chase” Linton, taken by Gabi Deaton for The Black Balloon Project. (Spectrum News 1/Jonathon Gregg)

“He had been up here in recovery and he had 15 months sobriety, but he died of a fentanyl overdose,” Boblitt said as she wept.   

He loved sunflowers, riding his motorcycle and tattoos. 

When it was time to take their black balloon photo, the family decided to stand in front of street art in Linton's memory. 

Boblitt hoped taking part in the project would help raise awareness of the epidemic that shows no signs of slowing. 

"They’re our kids that we love that we care about, that come from good homes and it’s not like what everybody thinks," she said.

Deaton’s gallery is as much about saving lives as honoring them.

Families took home close to 80 units of Narcan, after receiving training through the HEALing Communities Study out of Kenton County.

It's the same overdose-reversing drug that saved Deaton’s life twice. 

"The reason that I do this is because I’m here and they’re over there and I did not deserve this life any more than anybody featured in any of those photographs," she told the families gathered. 

Proceeds from a raffle and merchandise sold at the event went toward the purchase of a headstone for a woman who died from an overdose, with the remainder going towards the opening of an alcohol-free bar for people in recovery, Deaton said. 

Deaton is 11 years sober. She knows she will meet more grieving families when she begins next year’s project in the fall.

And while she’s grateful she can tell their stories, she wishes she didn’t have to. 

“All of the people in these photos, they matter," she said. "I want to be the voice for people who didn’t get the same opportunity as me.”