'Conversation tree' at Harford Mall hopes to get people talking about heroin

A "conversation tree" at Harford Mall hopes to get people talking about heroin at Harford Mall

With Valentine's Day coming up, the large pastel hearts covering a white fir tree could be mistaken for Sweethearts conversation candies, sharing playful expressions of love.

But some hearts on this brightly-lit tree, prominently displayed in Harford Mall's center court carry more grim messages: "Recovery." "B Safe." "Counsel." "Hope 4 Mike & John." "Hope 4 Aaron." "Be Honest." "Hard Work."

The project is part of an awareness campaign by The Albert P. Close Foundation to get people talking about the wave of heroin deaths and overdoses that has swept Harford County in recent years. The county saw 27 deaths from heroin last year, plus 173 non-fatal overdoses, according to law enforcement reports.

Known as Brandon's Conversation Tree, in honor of drug victim Brandon Paulick, the display of 55 hearts features not just conversation-starting phrases but photos of 29 Harford residents who succumbed to drug abuse.

"We want people to be aware of the issues and we want people to be here to talk to parents, especially, because parents don't really know what to do," Carol Frontera, president of The Albert P. Close Foundation, said, explaining the display will be up through the end of February and will be manned sometimes by foundation board members and others.

"We had some attention yesterday with parents kind of appearing frightened when their children were asking who are these people, and I don't want anyone to die in vain," Frontera said.

"I want there to be a voice for the voiceless," she said. "These are people that are sometimes marginalized in our society and they shouldn't be, so we're here to talk about it, we're here to bring awareness and just start that conversation."

The Foundation raises funds for "the growing population of troubled youth that reside in Harford County."

Frontera got the idea for the tree after seeing a similar project in southern California, with angels instead of hearts. People could buy the ornaments, which ended up selling out, she said.

Aberdeen's Jennilyn Landbeck, whose son Maxwell died in July 2014 after struggling with drug addiction, brought Frontera's vision for the tree to fruition and spent weeks designing the papier-mache hearts.

"It was one point where there were tears mixed in with the paints, that I have bawled making these, because the weeks and weeks it took, it was such a part of my morning, waking up and facing this again – even deciding what words to put on the tree, what would help somebody," Landbeck said, adding that the backs of the hearts say "Love you" or "Miss you."

Although the tree was only put up this weekend, the reaction to it has already shown the reach of heroin and general drug addiction in the county.

Bel Air's Doreen Conklin, who stopped by the display Monday morning, said two of her five children are struggling with addiction. She came with her son, Will, 25, who began using drugs when he was 12 and returned from rehab a month ago.

"This is an absolutely awesome idea," Conklin said. "We know, unfortunately, many people that are on the tree, and awareness is what this county needs. And the lawmakers and different people need to be aware that this is a disease and it needs to be treated as a disease, not a criminal act."

Conklin said anything that brings awareness is good for the community, because "it's being taken over by this disease." She had come to the mall to see the tree after reading about the Close Foundation's project on Facebook.

"I just picked my son up from rehab and we came straight there [to the mall]. My daughter's in another rehab in Texas right now, and I don't know what we can do but something needs to be done," she said.

Will Conklin called it "a great idea," saying it can help "people that are not familiar with addiction realize how serious it is." He was in rehab for the seventh time and said he thinks solutions for drug addiction are different for different people.

"For me, it's God and [Alcoholics Anonymous]," he said.

Frontera wants the tree to travel, possibly to sites like the courthouse. Landbeck said she hopes the tree can offer inspiration to others struggling with addiction, as well as prevent future heartbreak.

"I want them to know there is hope and I want them to know there is peace and possibilities of change, that you're not stuck forever if you're willing to change, whether or not you've hit rock bottom," she said.

"I want people to walk by and say, 'Huh, this is something we should talk about. This is something I don't want you to do,'" she said. "Don't break your family's heart. Be healthy and be safe."

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