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Barbara Allen has been named by Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman to head a new county opioid commission. She is executive director of James' Place, a nonprofit she runs to honor her son Jim Stallings who died in 2003 from an overdose.
Barbara Allen has been named by Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman to head a new county opioid commission. She is executive director of James' Place, a nonprofit she runs to honor her son Jim Stallings who died in 2003 from an overdose. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Barbara Allen’s son died of a heroin and alcohol overdose 15 years ago, and her brother and a niece also lost their lives in drug-related incidents.

Such a crushing string of personal tragedies would have broken many people, but not Allen, who will head Howard County’s newly announced Opioid Crisis Community Council.

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“I deal in death and drugs — that’s really the truth,” said the Ellicott City resident, whose appointment was announced Feb. 22 by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman during his State of the County address, in which he said the panel “will give the community a voice.”

“People ask me why — since I’m retired and I turned 70 last year — I don’t just sit around eating bonbons,” said Allen, executive director of James’ Place Inc., a nonprofit she co-founded in 2012 in her son’s name to provide scholarships for recovery services and sponsor educational programs.

“The reason is, I love talking to people who are in recovery and I love being a mom to them,” she said.

The new council is working to enlist 25 to 30 county residents who have lost loved ones or have loved ones in recovery due to opioid addiction. The panel will collaborate with county personnel to develop measures to prevent opioid misuse, Allen said.

“The council will consist of people who care, show up and do,” Allen said. She said she hopes to announce members’ names this week after the vetting process is completed.

Kittleman said Allen is uniquely qualified to take on this new role.

“Barbara has seen firsthand the suffering this epidemic brings and has worked to combat it,” he said in an email. “Her motto of ‘No shame or blame, just love’ gets the effort she will lead off to a great start.”

The tracking of drug overdoses has become much more precise over the last couple of years, according to Sherry Llewellyn, director of public affairs for the Howard County Police Department.

Since 2016, overdoses in Howard County have involved males and females, a wide range of ages, and varying demographics and geographic locations, Llewellyn said.

Both fatal and nonfatal incidents increased by approximately 30 percent in 2017 over the previous year, according to police records. The number of fatal overdoses rose from 43 to 57, and non-fatal overdoses grew from 133 to 171.

Through March 4 of this year there have been nine fatal overdoses and 33 nonfatal overdoses, Llewellyn said. She noted that the number of fatal overdoses recorded thus far in 2018 could change due to pending autopsy results.

Allen has used social media in her advocacy work to post thousands of photos of people who have died from opioid misuse disorder not only to honor their lives, but to motivate people to help in the fight against the brain disease.

“Barbara is very, very action-oriented and she gets the sense of urgency,” said Joanie Elder, who in 2004 co-founded Donleigh House in Columbia with her husband, Mike, to rent affordable rooms to men in recovery.

“She’s the right person for this job because she’s not afraid to step on toes,” Elder said. “And she won’t table any necessary action till the next month’s meeting because she knows that every delay means lives lost.”

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Aside from running her nonprofit, Allen co-chairs Maryland’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council and also serves on the county’s Opioid Intervention Team and on the board of The Compassionate Friends, a support organization for people dealing with grief.

Allen said her first brush with drug use occurred in Arizona when her son tried marijuana at age 13. Jimmy was 35 when a drug and alcohol overdose claimed his life.

In the intervening 22 years, he underwent treatment multiple times in Arizona, New Hampshire and Howard County, she said.

Allen said she repeatedly demanded of her son that he confront his demons head on and stood by him throughout each ordeal.

“He did really well each time, but I never felt he beat it and I never relaxed,” she recalled.

Jimmy succumbed after two decades of ups and downs, she said.

“I went through a period of feeling like I was a loser because I couldn’t save my son,” Allen recalled. “Until you’ve sat where I’ve sat, you don’t realize that grief support is so critical to people who feel like there’s this freaking hole and it’s unfillable.”

Though Allen felt she was educated about fighting the disease, after her son’s death she came to realize she “didn’t have a clue about the laws.”

In 2005, she came across a report titled, “After the War on Drugs” that introduced her to harm reduction methods, such as needle exchanges and access to naloxone, a synthetic drug administered to reverse the effects of opioids. It is also known by its brand name, Narcan.

“I got incredibly hungry to know more,” she said. “I still keep learning and asking questions.”

Nancy Rosen-Cohen, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Maryland, recalled her first impression of Allen, whom she met in 2011.

“Barbara came to us with a host of knowledge and the ability to listen and absorb,” Rosen-Cohen said.

“She is well-respected across Maryland and known as an outspoken advocate, and she has become a driving force in Howard County,” she said.

Elder said one of Allen’s many strengths is her way with people.

“Barbara can get people to feel as passionate as she does,” Elder said, adding that’s a high bar for anyone to reach. “This is not a job for her, it’s her calling.”

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