He was 7 years old when he lost his mother to an overdose. At 12, he lost his father, too.
Clark Hutcherson was just 7 years old when he was called to the school office and told that his mother had passed away. He was so young he didn’t really understand what was going on.
That wasn’t the case when, at 12, he was called home from a Chilton park. When he arrived, he learned from a police officer that he had lost his father, too.
In five years, both of his parents died of drug overdoses.
“It sucks and, I don’t know, just makes who I am different because I have no parents and stuff,” he said, sitting on the couch at the Chilton home he shares with his grandmother and her husband. “Like, when people talk about their parents, that’s like, oh, well, I have none.”
Now 15, he was one of the students who shared their stories during a spring assembly at Chilton High School. It wasn’t easy. He remembers shaking.
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“It’s one thing to maybe tell your close friends and family members, but the fact that he stood up in front of his entire class, entire school, that takes a ton of courage,” said Nadine Machkovech of Rise Together, the group that led the assembly and asked students to stand if they had lost someone in their lives to addiction or suicide.
The educators ask students to stand so the kids can see when they look around the room that they’re not alone in these struggles.
This wasn’t the first time Machkovech heard a story like Clark’s. They show, she said, how much addiction affects families and communities. She hopes his story will encourage others to share their experiences, building empathy and compassion.
Clark primarily lived with his mother, Leah Hutcherson, before she died in March 2010 at the age of 27. He remembers watching movies with his parents and going to the park. His memories of his mother are vague, he said.
Clark’s paternal grandmother, Ellie Hilton, summoned Clark from a nearby park in April 2015. He thought he was in trouble because he wasn’t supposed to be there.
Instead, with Hilton and her husband sitting on either side of Clark, a Chilton police officer who lives down the street told him they were called to a house where his father, Jeremy “Bud” Pate-Hilton, 39, was found. He had passed away.
“I couldn’t believe that it happened again,” Clark said.
When he thinks about his parents, he thinks about the hugs and the feeling of being with them.
Clark said he hadn’t seen his father for a week before he passed away.
“I would try to avoid him because, yeah,” he said, trailing off. He wasn’t too aware of when his father was or wasn’t using. He remembers that his dad was strict but also that he was gone a lot.
“Clark almost worships his mother and is very mad at his dad. … Part of it is because Jeremy knew better and had promised him he wouldn’t do that anymore,” said Hilton, who keeps with her a serenity prayer charm she says Pate-Hilton carried for years.
In the nearly three years between his father’s death and four people being charged this spring, Clark didn’t have much information about what had happened. All he knew was that his father had overdosed, and he was angry that his dad had used drugs.
Hilton was hopeful in those years that something would come of the investigation. It was a long road, and she wondered when, or whether, anything would happen.
As he sat in court in late March this year, Clark was also angry at the defendants.
Three people are charged in connection with Pate-Hilton’s death, accused of not calling 911 when he started to overdose at a Hilbert residence. Instead of summoning police, they took him to a home in Chilton, where a fourth person summoned Hilton, according to court records. The fourth person is charged with obstructing.
“It’s something I live with every day,” Hilton said, her voice straining. “I just re-live seeing my son and pretty much from looking at him, knowing he was already dead. Trying to take his pulse, and I just can’t figure out how someone can do that to someone else.”
An autopsy showed his death was caused by cocaine and fentanyl, an extremely powerful opioid.
“I look at it as, they made the worst decision of their life,” Hilton said. “Am I angry about it? Part of me. Do I feel sorry for them? Part of me.”
Now that she knows more about what happened, she said she can’t “believe that people can be so inhumane, especially to someone they called a friend.”
As she and her family move forward, Hilton says they try to keep the memory of Clark’s parents alive. As for Clark, she doesn’t worry about him going down a path toward addiction. He puts his energy into acting in school plays and video games. He recently landed a job at a farm.
She’s proud of him.
Clark won’t so much as carry a grocery bag with alcohol in it and doesn’t want to take an aspirin unless it’s really necessary. He said the aversion comes from his sense that drugs and alcohol influence people to do bad things. And he thinks his parents’ deaths might play a part.
Clark hopes that when other kids go through what he has that the people around them provide support.
“Keep an eye on the person or the child, make sure they’re doing okay but also give them their space,” he said.
Hilton wants people to understand that this is a crisis for families across the country.
“Unless you have a person that is in your family that’s addicted or a friend, you don’t realize how much it’s going on,” she said.