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Community remembers those lost to substance abuse, hopes for better tomorrow

Vigil attendees hold up candles at St. John's Episcopal Church Aug. 31 in remembrance of those who have died of an overdose.
Vigil attendees hold up candles at St. John's Episcopal Church Aug. 31 in remembrance of those who have died of an overdose. (Kate Magill/ BSMG)

All that could be seen on the lawn of St. John's Episcopal Church Thursday night was the glow of dozens of candles. Each one marked the life of someone lost to substance abuse, the unforgiving disease that continues to take lives across the country and throughout Howard County.

The crowd at the International Overdose Awareness Day event was diverse, made up of county officials, family members of those battling addiction or whose loved ones had died and those recovering from substance abuse. Friends and family exchanged hugs and pats on the back, some to comfort those in grief, and some to celebrate weeks, months and years of sobriety.

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Thursday's vigil was meant to remember those lost, raise awareness of the disease and end the stigma against substance abuse. The night started with demonstrations by county first responders and opioid misuse prevention coordinator Seante' Hunt on administering the opioid antidote naloxone, and professionals offering treatment resources; and ended with speeches from officials, family members and individuals in recovery before the lighting of vigil candles.

People like Kristy Flower had the chance to share memories of those they had lost. Flower talked to the crowd about her brother, Scott, the "handsome, funny brother" she lost to a heroin overdose 10 years ago.

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Before the vigil, Flower said coming to events like this helps "bring her peace" by taking action against substance abuse. She said gatherings like the vigil get more people talking about substance abuse, and more people to admit the truth about the impact of the disease.

The number of heroin related deaths in Howard County between January and March this year doubled compared to the same time frame last year, painting a grim reality of the substance abuse crisis the county faces.

County officials, including County Executive Allan Kittleman, Health Officer Maura Rossman and Police Chief Gary Gardner, spoke to the crowd and reaffirmed their commitment to ending the spread of substance abuse in Howard County, beginning with establishing the county's first residential detox facility.

"On the one hand I ask for patience," Rossman said about the time it has taken to establish the center. "On the other hand I know there is a sense of urgency."

That urgency was ever present on Thursday. As of this week, the number of heroin deaths in Howard County has preceded the death toll from 2016, Rossman said during her remarks.

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The night was dotted with brighter moments from people in recovery, who talked about their journey to overcome addiction.

"This disease does not choose between sex, race, creed," one person said. "It'll take you down and take you down quick."

After the speeches had finished and the applause died down, the crowd held out their candles and the lawn became spotted with a yellow glow. Family and friends had the chance to speak out the names of those they had lost, some sharing two or three names.

Howard County's Department of Corrections will now offer substance abuse intervention and treatment services to low level offenders, County Executive Allan Kittleman announced July 25.

A recording of the hymn "Amazing Grace" played softly, and for a few minutes those at the vigil stood together, free from the stigma of the outside world and united in their desire to beat the devastating disease of addiction.

One person in recovery wrapped up the sense of the evening when she said every day she remains sober is a victory, something she doesn't take for granted. She ended her speech poignantly, telling the crowd, "I only have today."



Reach Kate Magill at kmagill@baltsun.com.

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