Channeling pain of loss to help others


This is the third article in a series examining the opioid crisis in Fayette County.

Nikki Virts, 38, of Fayette County, recently lost her father. She said he was a good man, a smooth talker, and a loving grandfather who held his hours-old grandson up to the sky and declared that a king had been born.

He was also the victim of childhood abuse. He suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, and paranoid schizophrenia. He was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He spent years in and out of jail and he was occassionally homeless.

On April 5, he died of an overdose. The substance he used is believed to have been Carfentanil, according to Virts. His name was Kimball Pettiford. He was 60-years-old.

Pettiford was among the 21.5 million Americans who struggle with addiction. Virts was among the millions of children who are affected by their parents’ substance abuse. In Fayette County alone, nearly 70 percent of children in the foster care system are there because of their parents’ substance abuse problems.

Virts said Pettiford struggled with addiction to a variety of substances, both illicit, like crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin, and licit, like alcohol and pain killers. Virts said it was pain killers, which a doctor gave him for his back pain, that led Pettiford down the road to heroin. After his prescription ran out, he turned to the street to satiate his opioid cravings, she said.

Growing up, her father’s addiction often made Virts’s life chaotic and unstable. In the third grade, she moved to three different schools. One time, she got off the bus and found that all of the furniture in the house had been sold. She hid quarters in the seams of her curtains so she could ride her bike to Denny’s and call her aunt in case of an emergency.

She was “embarrassed, and I mean, utterly ashamed, fifth grade all the way up to my freshman year of high school” of her father’s addiction, but, “I just, you know, I dealt with it,” she said.

Just after her 13th birthday, Virts’s father was sent to jail for two years, she said. He’d spend the rest of his life in and out for parole violations related to drug use.

“When it comes to my dad, he’s got a criminal record like no other… but that’s not who he was. When he would use or he would drink he was a totally different person than when he was sober,” she said. “You watch them go from being these stand-up people that you know that you love with every fiber of your being to being this person you don’t even recognize.”

Virts watched her father change before her eyes. She watched him start wearing long sleeve shirts in the heat of summer. She watched him start asking, over and over, “Can I borrow ten dollars, can I borrow ten dollars?” Looking back, she said she realizes these were signs that he had begun to inject heroin.

Virts wants members of the community who judge addicts to remember that they “don’t know what kind of person they are when they’re not using,” she said.

She added, “I think people need to give them the benefit of the doubt and stop pointing those fingers.”

“I just want people to understand that, I mean, they’re no different from anyone else. A lot of people are in denial, I think, that this can’t touch them or can’t touch their family,” she said.

After her father’s overdose, Virts “became obsessed” with finding out who he had been using with when he died. “I wanted to find out who just left him there,” she said. Eventually, however, she prayed and felt that God was telling her to let it go.

Since then, she’s begun to focus her attention on preventing anyone else from having to go through the loss of a loved one to overdose.

She helps to run Dose of H.O.P.E. (Hold On Pain Ends) meetings at the Rose Avenue Community Center every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. The meetings are open to the public and feature a free meal, testimonials from recovering addicts and others affected by addiction, and a chance to find a support network within the community.

Virts is also organizing an Overdose Awareness balloon launch which will be held on Aug. 31 at the Rose Avenue Community Center. The launch will occur at 5:30 p.m. and will be followed by a presentation from Jemar Harris, a recovering addict who now owns his own business and runs a non-profit in Chillicothe.

Virts is also organizing the Skate for a Dose of H.O.P.E event on Aug. 9 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Roller Haven. Admission and skate rental will each be $2. Plus, if you wear purple, you’ll get five free raffle tickets. Additional raffle tickets will be available for sale.

In addition to her desire to help individuals who are currently suffering from addiction, Virts hopes to find ways to prevent the younger generation from ever starting to use drugs.“I wanna help in some way, shape, or form,” she said. She hopes to see increased programming in the schools to teach students about the dangers of drugs.

Virts said she wants people to realize “the epidemic, the crisis, it is here.” She said if action is not taken in the community, “We’re gonna continue to lose people. It takes a community standing together as a whole to even remotely bring a change,” she added.

Virts believes “we need something as far as sober living housing, we need a rehab facility.”

She wants children who are currently being raised by addicts to understand that “your life may not be all you want it to be growing up, but you don’t have to be that way. You can always be your own person. You either let your childhood that you lived, you let it make you or break you,” she added.

Virts had always planned to leave Fayette County after her youngest son graduated high school, “but since this happened I told my husband I can’t leave. I can’t go anywhere now,” she said. She doesn’t want to leave her father, who has been buried in Washington Cemetery beneath a handmade wooden cross that reads “Daddy.” She said,“I plan on staying around for him now.”

Nikki Virts poses beside the marker of her father, Kimball Pettiford’s grave. The handmade wooden cross says “Daddy” with a heart. Virts poses beside the marker of her father, Kimball Pettiford’s grave. The handmade wooden cross says “Daddy” with a heart.

Virts shows a tattoo she got in memory of her father. It says “addict to angel.” The signature “Love, Daddy” was reproduced from one of Pettiford’s letters to Virts. shows a tattoo she got in memory of her father. It says “addict to angel.” The signature “Love, Daddy” was reproduced from one of Pettiford’s letters to Virts.

By Megan Neary

[email protected]

Reach Megan Neary at 614-440-9124 or @MeganNeary2