Community gathers for Human Rope to Stop the Dope in Bel Air

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The landscaping crews working in front of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office headquarters in downtown Bel Air might have been making a racket Saturday morning, but that did not stop about 50 people from taking part in the sixth annual Human Rope to Stop the Dope event.

“No matter what obstacles, we were going to show up because people with addictions, they have a lot of obstacles to overcome,” Yvonne Harris, executive director of Youth Drug Awareness and Prevention, said.

Human Rope to Stop the Dope, which was held in front of the Harford County Courthouse, is organized through Youth Drug Awareness and Prevention, a nonprofit organization. It is meant to raise awareness of the ongoing opioid addiction crisis in Harford County.

There have been 316 suspected opioid overdoses so far this year, 58 of them fatal, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics.

Participants stood in a line along Main Street across from the Sheriff’s Office headquarters, waving to motorists and holding signs and banners. The street had been closed by police in front of the Sheriff’s Office, meaning drivers had to travel on the left-hand side of the traffic island that splits South Main Street between Courtland Place and Office Street.

Rope to Stop the Dope participants, a number of whom wore T-shirts bearing the phrase “Heroin kills,” held signs and a banner with the phrase “Human Rope to Stop the Dope.”

Savannah Kent, a Harford Technical High School senior and member of the Black Youth in Action Debutante Program, held a sign and waved.

“A lot of the people [passing by] were smiling and waving back,” the 18-year-old Edgewood resident said. “It felt good to know they were paying attention.”

Awareness of an issue — the opioid crisis in this case — is “the first step in moving forward,” Kent said.

She said she has lived in Harford County for 10 years, but only became aware of the heroin addiction scourge about a year and a half ago. Kent said she has friends whose family members have died from drug overdoses.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who was among the Rope to Stop the Dope participants, addressed heroin addiction in Harford during his first State of the County speech in 2015. He has made fighting it, with the support of law enforcement, schools and community organizations, a top priority of his administration.

Joe Ryan, manager of the county’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said the Rope to Stop the Dope is one more initiative to raise awareness.

“We still have people out there that don’t believe it’s an issue,” Ryan said.

Jim and Helen Kurtz, of Bel Air, are supporting their 26-year-old daughter, Caroline, as she tries to recover from addiction.

Addiction is “definitely a disease, no doubt about it,” said Jim Kurtz, who compared it to cancer or diabetes.

“Heroin is stronger than love, it’s stronger than anything,” Helen Kurtz said.

Both emphasized the need to show addicts compassion rather than judgement. Helen Kurtz, who said her daughter has been on a “journey to sobriety” since 2012, compared the recovery process to beating cancer. The cancer is in remission for a few years, but then it comes back.

“To me, it’s like a seed in their brain and it never dies,” she said of addiction.

Kurtz said her daughter is “such a beautiful sweetheart,” wanting to rescue any lost animal or person, but she becomes “an unrecognizable monster” when in active addiction.

She and her husband have stressed to Caroline, who is in an out-of-state treatment program, that she must stay connected to her recovery support system. Kurtz said simply being at home, around her parents or any items from her past, can be an addiction trigger.

“It’s devastating,” Kurtz said. “I lost my daughter, and I have this new person that I have to get to know all over again.”

The Rope to Stop the Dope event is held in memory of Yvonne Harris’s daughter, Alyssa Whelan, who died from an overdose in 2011 at age 19.

Harris, the director of Youth Drug Awareness and Prevention, recalled that the last text message she received from her daughter stated that she would be home the next morning.

“She went home in Heaven,” Harris said.

Harris addressed the Harford County Council about the growing opioid addiction problem seven years ago, after her daughter died. She sought help from multiple local and state agencies, but was usually told that officials were aware of the problem, but could not help.

Harris said she was able to work with Ryan to put on the Rope to Stop the Dope event — the inaugural gathering happened in 2013.

“What we’re trying to do is break the stigma [of addiction]” Harris said. “We put it out there and let people know this is what’s going on in the county; maybe people with the problem will come forward.”

Events intersect

The Quick Draw Competition, part of the final day of the six-day Harford Plein Air Festival, happened Saturday morning, with about 100 artists capturing scenes of downtown Bel Air while painting outside.

Visitors could check out the paintings, which the artists had two hours to create, set up along Office Street around the corner from where Rope to Stop the Dope participants stood.

Several of those participants interacted with festival officials and discussed how art therapy could be used to help addicts in recovery.

“It was one of those wonderful serendipitous type of days, two good causes happening at the same time,” Toby Musser, board chair of the Maryland Center for the Arts, said.

The Maryland Center for the Arts put on the festival in cooperation with the Town of Bel Air and Harford County, Musser said.

Janet Manfre, of Bel Air, looked at the paintings along Office Street. She said she drove past the Rope to Stop the Dope, but did not know what the event was about.

“It’s pretty devastating,” she said of the addiction crisis.

She said she learned about the plein air festival while visiting the Bel Air Farmers Market, which happens each Saturday morning from April through November in the parking lot of the Mary E. W. Risteau District Court & Multi-Service Center at South Bond and Thomas Streets.

“It’s something that you wouldn’t find everywhere,” she said of the festival. “To me, it’s a benefit of being in Harford County.”

Manfre praised having the festival and addiction event in the same place around the same time, and said she would not have known about the latter, if she did not come see the paintings.

She compared the present-day farmers’ market to a time when the weekly market was the center of a community, where people could learn all manner of information.

“It’s a good way to get any kind of message out,” Manfre said.

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