Making sense of chaos

Heroin: A mother's campaign against drugs reaches far beyond its Carroll County origins.

May 31, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When Linda Auerback walked into Westminster High School on Jan. 12, 1998, she was stunned to find students in the hallways with tears streaming down their faces, some dashing toward guidance counselors' offices, some pouring into the main office to get permission to go home early.

A 15-year-old schoolmate, Liam O'Hara, had died of a heroin overdose.

"I have never seen anything so chaotic in my life," Auerback said. She had gone to the school that day to pick up her daughter, Lacey, who had been dating Liam.

"To see such chaos in a school when kids are sitting quiet in class one minute, and then they hear an announcement and everyone's running through the school the next, I knew I wanted to do something. I had a gut feeling that something was terribly wrong in our community, and I knew I had to do something."

Auerback's "something" was the formation of Residents Attacking Drugs, a grass-roots organization whose reach has gone global.

The group's short film, "Heroin Kills," is being shown to teen-agers in 43 states and eight other countries. A new MTV-style music video set to the film's rock song of the same name earned a standing ovation May 22 when it premiered at Carroll County's annual drug summit.

A sheriff's office in Maine has just formed the first RAD chapter. And in its first three years in Carroll, the organization is credited with raising awareness and helping reduce the number of heroin overdoses in the county by a third.

"I wish we had a better way to gauge the impact they've made," said retired Maryland State Police Sgt. Michael College, who was a state trooper for 26 years and supervised Carroll's drug task force before he retired in January 2000. "We can look at the ages of the overdoses coming out of the hospital, and where they used to be under 18, they're now over 18.

"But really, what I can say is that I'd hate to think what things would have been like if it hadn't been for Linda and RAD. I'd hate to think of what would have happened if they weren't around, beating the bandwagon about the dangers of this thing."

Joanne Hayes has spent 11 years working with Carroll public schools as a substance-abuse prevention coordinator. She acknowledges that she was skeptical of RAD's first idea - to produce a fictional movie about a teen-age boy who is pressured to try heroin, slowly falls victim to an addiction and dies in his bed from an overdose.

"I tried to discourage them from doing `Heroin Kills' because we see so many videos come into the school system that are made by professionals and that are too long and do not have the salient points we need in them," Hayes said. "I was very nervous trying to support the activities of this group that was so determined to make a difference in our community."

Now, Hayes is one of RAD's biggest advocates.

The stark, 35-minute film has become part of the health curriculum in eighth grade and high school. And newcomers to the county have confided that the aggressive anti-drug campaign helped them decide where they wanted to raise a family.

"People have told me that the reason they came to Carroll County was because they know heroin is all over Maryland but that Carroll County was the only place that was doing anything about it," Hayes said.

"What we know about in my line of work is risk and protective factors relating to substance abuse, and we know that the very existence of Linda Auerback and her organization is a protective factor for us because they have gotten word out about the dangers of heroin. And it's not a one-shot deal - they're back at it again and again."

To many, Shirley Andrews and Michael O'Hara are the public faces of RAD. Both lost their sons to heroin overdoses - Andrews in 1996 and O'Hara two years later. They are the RAD members who regularly speak to schoolchildren and PTA members across the region. They've even shared their stories on the television talk shows of Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jessy Raphael.

Catalyst and motivator

Auerback is more of the organizer, described by those who know her as a catalyst and a motivator, an angel and the glue that holds RAD together.

The 48-year-old darts around a room as if she hasn't a moment to spare. And yet she forges such strong connections with people that teen-agers, paramedics and others in the community ensure that she is almost always among the first to know when another young person dies of a heroin overdose.

The mother of four and the religious education office manager for St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, Auerback now confesses that she was somewhat resistant to the idea of forming a group.

"We were just parents meeting in my living room," she said during a recent interview in her office at St. John, where family photos and angel prints crowd the walls and ledges. "I had a gut feeling that forming a group would be like having another child."

She was right.

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