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In third iteration, drug and violence expo still making a difference

The third annual Drug and Violence Awareness Expo got off to a focused start, with a special half-hour presentation on the risks of drug use. It was just Carroll County State's Attorney's Office Drug Prevention and Treatment Liaison Tim Weber and a group of students gathered before the event opened to the public.

"We did that from 8:30 a.m. to 8:50 a.m., so it was only the high school kids in here," Weber said. "There were about 500 of them in here and it was quiet — they all listened. It's just been really well put together."

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Officially open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the expo was stacked with presentations on drug and alcohol use and domestic violence, as well as demonstrations of the consequences. A car crumpled in a collision with a tree sat in one corner of the Carroll County Agricultural Center's Shipley Arena. Across from it was the impaired driving simulator, operated by McDaniel College.

Throughout the day, more than 2,000 high school and middle school students came through the expo, free to explore but also guided to presentations and demonstrations in a balanced and effective manner. It was an improvement on years past, according to Tammy Lofink, founder of the nonprofit Rising Above Addiction.

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"To have it organized where certain kids come in and sit down and actually hear what the speakers have to say," Lofink said. "Last year there were three people listening to me and two of them were my daughter and my friend's daughter."

The inaugural Drug and Violence Awareness Expo was held in 2015 as a response to the growing number of drug and alcohol overdose deaths in Carroll County and the region. Sponsored by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, it was a way for the business community to make a difference. According to the chairman of the chamber's Business Education Committee, Joe Tabeling, this year's expo was the result of a learning curve.

"It's like any expo or any event — there is always going to be trial and error," he said. "With the cooperation of everyone that was involved, taking everybody's comments and suggestions, we were able to develop it and grow it into what we saw today — a very smooth-running type of event."

The Drug and Violence Awareness Expo will return to the Shipley Arena for the third year running on Thursday, April 27, cementing the event as a key investment

The seamlessness of the event, and changes to the layout, seemed to make the messaging more effective for the young people in attendance as well. Placing the totaled car near the drunk driving simulator, for instance, made the connection between the two more clear for some students.

"I didn't realize how significant it is when you get into a crash like that, it's kind of surreal. You see crashes on TV, but that's a real car; you can actually see all the details," said Pierson Williams, a senior at Silver Oak Academy. "I am kind of imagining myself being in there with my friends, just realizing, 'What if that had been us?'"

A quieter, more expansive presentation space also gave some students a more focused experience when listening to speakers such as Beth Schmidt, whose talk about how she lost her her son, Sean, to a heroin overdose in 2013 moved West Middle School eighth-grader Megan Hands.

"I though the way she told the story was very educational and powerful," Megan said. "It made you realize more how dangerous it can be."

Schmidt's story was sobering to Pierson as well.

"I'm from [Prince George's] County, so it's eye-opening to realize it's even out here, too," he said. "It just opened my eyes; it's not just local where we're at. It's a nationwide problem."

Meaghan Jessee is the first to acknowledge that no information campaign will solve every problem for all people — there are young people who would never have tried drugs even without coming to the expo, and others that will try them no matter what anyone tells them.

Jessee was dating Robert Lofink, Tammy Lofink's son, when he fatally overdosed on heroin in 2014. It was the inciting event that led Tammy Lofink to found Rising Above Addiction to help pay for addicts seeking treatment. Jessee remembers how things and people change.

"I remember being in eighth grade and watching the heroin kills video. I remember specifically being in that seat and being like, 'Wow, I am never going to do heroin, ever. I am never going to be with someone who does heroin,'" Jessee said. "Then I wake up one day and I find my boyfriend overdosed in his bed, you know, dead."

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Jessee was at the expo with Lofink to talk about her experience and Rising Above Addiction, which is preparing to open a sober home for women in Westminster this summer. The wide variety of the presentations at the expo, the intimacy and intensity, could make the difference for some students who might otherwise have been on the fence when it comes to drug use later in life, she said.

An example: Robert Lofink and Jessee's high school homecoming portrait was placed at their table at the expo for all to see.

"We had a girl, a sixth- or seventh-grader. She looked at that picture and she was all smiles, 'Oh my gosh you guys, that's a great picture!' Oh yeah, he's dead. He died from an overdose," Jessee said. "I thought she was going to cry."

"It was the look you want," Lofink said, adding that it makes it real for people.

And making it real, making the issues of drug and alcohol use and violence tangible and not just a chapter in a book, Pierson said, is the way to make a connection with youth.

"Show them the risk and the consequences of what they're doing," he said. "I think it's really useful. I think a lot of kids will leave here and really utilize this information for decisions they are making."

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PSAs for prevention winners announced

The Carroll County State's Attorney's Office and the Carroll Media Center used the 2017 Drug and Violence Awareness Expo stage to announce the winners of the 2017 Youth Voices Public Service Announcement. This contest allowed middle and high school students to pitch ideas for public service announcements on the topic of drug use and prevention.

The middle school winners were William Tobias, of East Middle School, in first place. Mallory Scheuler was second and Kyle McMahon was third, both of Sykesville Middle School.

In the high school competition, the winners were Delaney Debinski, of Century High School, in first and Logan Schooley, of Winters Mill High School, in second. In third place was Adam Bowen, of Westminster High School.

All of the winners received awards and will have the opportunity to see their winning PSAs produced by Carroll Media Center; middle school winners will receive radio spots and high school winners will have videos.

"We were very impressed by the creativity and compassion of each of the participants," Carroll County State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo wrote in a prepared statement. "It is clear from their submissions that these students heard and understood the importance of these issues, and will continue to be positive influencers to their peers."



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