Anti-drug drama asks: `Whose kid was that?'

Skit shocks parents out of complacency

October 04, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

It took Thomasina Piercy a year after her son died of a heroin overdose to look at a photograph of him.

It was another year before she could pick out a frame to put his picture on display.

Now, about 2 1/2 years after her son appeared in a dream with stirring words, Piercy is finally able to wholeheartedly fulfill his final request.

"He spoke only nine words and they were the last nine words he spoke to me," she recently told a room full of parents at Eldersburg Elementary's back-to-school night. "He came to me in that dream and he said, `It's not what you say, it's what you do.'"

Piercy knew that with that age-old adage, her son was trying to tell her that it was not enough for her to say she was against drugs.

She needed to do something about it.

This school year, Piercy, who is principal of Mount Airy Elementary School, and a group of law enforcement officers, community leaders, high school drama students and families personally affected by substance abuse introduced a drug-awareness program at all 36 of Carroll County's back-to-school nights.

It's called "Not My Kid" -- a reference to the complacency parents feel in thinking that none of the substance abuse issues that have propelled Carroll into the national spotlight with its fight against heroin will ever afflict their child.

It's a sentiment with which Piercy is all too familiar.

In January 1999, her son, Michael DePinto, came to her with a concern. Sitting at their kitchen table, the 19-year-old told Piercy that some friends of his were experimenting with heroin and that he didn't know what to do.

"Well, would you ever try anything like that, Michael?" she asked, and was comforted when he told her that he was not that stupid.

Two months later, Piercy found him dead in their Westminster apartment from a fatal dose of heroin. Some of his friends told her that it was probably the first time the 6-foot-6-inch Westminster High graduate and basketball player had tried the drug.

"It always comes as such a surprise when your child tells you, `I know someone using drugs,'" said Piercy. "And I was just not prepared. I truly feel that with my not being as prepared as I could have been, I did not see the red flags.

"I did not realize that when a child starts coming to you and saying some of his friends are doing drugs, that's when they start chipping into the core value system you raised them with and that core value system weakens with each friend who tries drugs until it gets to the point that they could say yes themselves."

Piercy is a gentle, soft-spoken woman who earnestly talks about all students -- from elementary to high school -- as children. She grew up on a farm near Westminster, went to Western Maryland College and settled in her hometown, cognizant of its reputation as a good place to raise children.

Her wisp of a voice reminds you of the kindergarten teacher who would pick you up and get you a bandage whenever you scraped your knee on the playground. And when she talks about her oldest son, she tends to wring her hands and her large, expressive eyes well up with tears.

Before this fall, Piercy had spoken publicly only three times -- at the Westminster Police Department's annual fifth-grade anti-drug assembly -- about her son's death.

But when the number of drug overdoses and heroin deaths among Carroll youth continued to climb -- at least 13 county residents have died of heroin overdoses since January 2000 -- she resolved to do something more.

"I knew I couldn't tolerate that anymore, knowing what I knew," Piercy said. "I couldn't let more children die and let more families experience what we had experienced. I thought more about what Michael had said to me and I knew our county was in trouble."

She went to see Charles I. Ecker, interim superintendent of Carroll schools, who told her about a program started six years ago by the Howard County state's attorney's office called "Not My Kid."

The more Piercy learned of the program, the more she knew it was just what she was looking for.

"I thought, `This is the message we need to get out because that is exactly what I experienced with Michael,'" Piercy recalled of her initial meetings with Howard State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon and former Howard school board member Stephen C. Bounds.

Ecker agreed: "It talks to the parents and it brings parents to reality. A lot of us parents say, `It's not my kid, it's yours,' when in fact, it is my kid. The Not My Kid program brings that home to parents and we're going to need parental help if we're going to solve this substance abuse problem.

"I saw in Thommie [Piercy] a passion to do something," Ecker added. "She picked up this Not My Kid ball and ran with it -- she set a world's record running with it."

Piercy and her group of volunteers began meeting in February to reshape and expand Howard County's program.

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