Young people who have lost a loved one to heroin are speaking out in a series of public service announcements in Harford County movie theaters this summer.
Produced by the administration of County Executive Barry Glassman, the first of three 30-second PSAs debuted on June 17 in a campaign that will run through September. Spokesperson Cindy Mumby said Wednesday the initial public response on social media has been positive.
The new video PSAs are the Harford County administration's newest effort to raise awareness about the national heroin epidemic affecting Harford County. It estimates the messages will be seen by an estimated 131,000 movie-goers.
Speaking in the first PSA are 12-year-old Jade Buddenbohn from Fallston and 15-year-old Alyana Beck from Street, who lost their cousin to an overdose in December 2015.
Subsequent PSAs will feature 8-year-old Ava Buddenbohn from Fallston; 10-year-old Mara Finnegan from Forest Hill; 18-year-old Patrick Beck from Street; 15-year-old Alaina Rives from Street and 16-year-old Lexi Kuzma from Bel Air. Mumby said those videos are in production.
The PSAs are intended to help bridge the "summer gap" in countywide anti-drug messaging.
"Summer vacation should not be a vacation from talking to your kids about heroin," Glassman said in a statement. "We need to keep these conversations going because nothing is more powerful than parents talking to their kids about drugs."
The messages come at a time when overdose deaths from heroin, prescription opiates and other abused substances are on the rise, both in Harford and around the state.
Maryland health officials said Wednesday that 383 people died of overdoses in the first three months of the year, showing the challenge of curbing drug abuse across the state, The Baltimore Sun reported.
There were 318 fatal overdoses in the first quarter of last year and 1,259 total last year, nearly doubling from 2010, according to data from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The Harford County Sheriff's Office reports a weekly tally on heroin overdose calls. As of this week, deputies responded to 126 calls, of which 18 were fatal, since Jan. 1.
Under a policy instituted in early 2015 in an effort to gather more intelligence on illicit drug supplies, the Sheriff's Office began sending narcotics detectives on all calls for overdoses through the county 911 center. Responding deputies are equipped with and trained in the use of the opiate antidote Narcan.
The Sheriff's Office responded to 200 heroin-related overdose calls in 2015, 27 of which were fatal. The statistics don't include situations where a person went directly to a hospital or emergency treatment facility without calling 911.
"Harford County Public Schools and Harford County government's prevention specialists do an excellent job reaching parents and students throughout the school year, but it is more difficult to reach families during busy summer months," Amber Shrodes, director of the Harford County Department of Community Services, said in a news release. "We want to reach kids in different ways throughout the year to ensure the message continues to be top-of-mind."
The PSAs were produced in a peer-to-peer format, which is recommended by experts in the field of juvenile drug prevention and by Maryland Governor Hogan's Heroin Task Force, according to the release.
"These are the types of stories that are resonating with our youth," said Wendy Messner, founder and president of Rage Against Addiction Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to connecting addicts and their families with recovery resources.
Messner also helped the Department of Community Services' Office of Drug Control Policy identify youth for the PSAs.
"I am so proud of all of the PSA participants," she said. "I applaud their courage to share these deeply painful accounts. It is not in vain. This is what works. These messages keep kids from experimenting with drugs."
The PSAs can be viewed online at www.harfordcountymd.gov/services/drugcontrol and on the Harford County Office on Drug Control Policy Facebook page.
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Meredith Cohn of The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.