SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — As the pandemic continues, a different crisis is growing—the use of opioids, specifically fentanyl.
One San Diego family shares a personal message after their teenage daughter died from a fentanyl overdose.
The Williams' family Christmas tree is filled with personalized ornaments, many with photos over the years.
"Kendal loved Christmas," Beth Williams said of her daughter. It was her favorite holiday.
The Mt. Carmel High School student planned to join the military like her parents. "She applied to different military academies. She was in Sea Cadets," her mother said. "She was very involved with that."
But Kendal isn't here anymore to talk about her future or celebrate Christmas. "Christmas is hard. Last Christmas, we weren't home," Beth said. "It'd be something that will set you off."
Kendal died in March 2020. Beth and her husband, Tony, remember that day vividly. Beth knew when she heard the knock at her door.
"They said… it's the police. And as soon as they opened the door, I say Kendal's dead," Beth said.
She died of a fentanyl overdose. She was only 17.
"It's very difficult to put your ahead around it," Kendal's father Tony said. "I was sitting right here when they told me."
When asked how they can keep going, Beth told Team 10, "What choice do you have?"
Both Tony and Beth said they were very involved with their children's lives, helping and volunteering in kids' school.
They had no idea about their daughter's secret.
Her parents said Kendal was a good student and a competitive cheerleader with a bright future, but they learned—too late—that she had been doing drugs.
Beth Williams said she discovered it was going on for at least a year. "She was hanging out with this girl, and they were doing these drugs," Beth said.
She said that girl was one of her daughter's best friends, Mia Thompson.
The two met through cheerleading. Thompson was a couple of years older.
In November, Thompson and another young woman were sentenced in connection with Kendal's overdose. The two pleaded guilty to giving fentanyl to a minor. They did not receive jail time but did get two years probation and 250 hours of community service.
"I asked the district attorney, what could I ask the judge to do that would be beyond what the deal was that wouldn't blow the deal? And that's how we asked for community service," Beth said. "I really wanted then to even serve a couple nights in jail and they didn't even do that. They bailed out right away."
Kendal's family is not alone. According to the DA's office, fentanyl overdose deaths have increased from 33 in 2016 to almost 700 so far this year.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the number of DEA-seized counterfeit pills with fentanyl has jumped nearly 430 percent since 2019.
Beth said she trusted Mia's family because she's known them for years through cheerleading. She said Mia's mother knew about Mia's history with drugs, yet didn't tell her.
Beth believes the night her daughter died, they were taking counterfeit pills—percocet laced with the deadly drug.
ABC 10News reached out to Mia's family. Her mother would not comment.
Beth is urging parents to talk to other parents, as uncomfortable as it may be. She also encourages kids' friends to find a way to say something.
"They could have sent an anonymous note or something that would have alerted us… to what was going on," Beth said. "Because there was nothing about her behavior that we saw."
There are efforts to combat opioid use, especially among kids and teenagers. The DA's office recently held a forum for middle and high school students to warn them about fentanyl-related deaths. Fentanyl victims include students as young as 16-years-old, a spokesperson said. They found young people experimenting with the drug as early as 12.
Beth encourages families to go further than just talking to their children.
"I tell all my friends test their hair," Beth said. "Nobody wants their kid to think they don't trust them, so if you give them a urine test, they know you don't trust them. But if you pull a piece of hair from their hairbrush once a year, they never know it."
When asked her response to parents who believe this is excessive, she responded, "Well, they can have a dead kid."
One of the last gifts Kendal gave her parents was a scrapbook she made in class. In it, she wrote about the three most important people to her—her Spanish teacher, her father, and her mother.
She wrote that her mother was a "huge role model," and her dad inspired her "to pursue something that fascinates [her]."
The scrapbook was given to her parents the day before she died.
While time may heal all wounds, the scars left behind never go away.
"It's not a parent. It's not a spouse," Beth said. "Your child can't be replaced."