Stepping away from the roar of the band performing in Baker Park on Saturday, local addiction recovery advocate Chasity Fox smiled as she thought of the inspiration for the day of music she’d organized.
“Music brings people together, no matter your skin color, your sex, no matter what, so with that in mind I wanted to have a music venue,” Fox said. “... and I wanted to honor my brother, because he was a musician.”
Fox’s brother, Richard “RJ” Holmes, played bass in a punk band called Corrupted Youth, performing multiple times in Warped Tour. Unfortunately, in spite of his musical talent, excellent grades and future prospects, RJ died from a heroin overdose on Oct. 18 in 2016, Fox said.
Having formed RJ’s Lasting Strength Foundation, which was officially chartered as a nonprofit in 2017, Fox put on her first Hope for Change fest in RJ’s honor on Aug. 19, 2017. This year’s event was even bigger, combining live musical acts with food vendors and several tents set up for local addition recovery groups and health officials.
By providing free music, Fox hopes to entice people who may be on the fence about seeking treatment to step up and talk to someone about getting help in a more relaxed, informal environment.
Up the hill from the bandshell stage, Pam Knight, an addiction recovery advocate from Libertytown, said she managed to get several people to open up by offering a giant chalkboard where people can fill in their answers to the statement, “Before I die I want to.”
Answers ranged from skydiving or visiting a foreign country, to more powerful, personal goals. One message read, “I want to get clean and see my daughter love life,” while another crossed out the word “to” in order to write, “I want another day of sobriety.”
“It’s a simple activity but I’ve found that it causes some really great, emotional responses from people,” Knight said. “From there, hopefully I’m able to talk to them and get them to share.”
From her personal experiences, Knight said the problem of addition has only gotten worse, particularly in regards to opioids, which she also struggled with years ago in the form of prescription painkillers.
Users are also increasingly becoming younger, Knight said, saying she had an intervention for a 14-year-old Frederick County resident just last spring.
The official numbers for overdoses and overdose fatalities have indeed remained high, according to both local law enforcement officials and local and state health departments.
The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office has compiled opioid-related overdoses and death totals handled by police agencies across the county dating back to 2012, but the state health department’s year-end reports often include deaths that law enforcement agencies either were not called to or that required further analysis to determine, such as in the case of an unattended death.
While the sheriff’s office’s data indicated county law enforcement agencies responded to 342 opioid-related overdoses last year, including 51 that were fatal, the state’s numbers were even higher.
A total of 78 people died of intoxication deaths last year in Frederick County, according to the state health department’s year-end report for 2017. Of those deaths, 35 were the result of heroin overdoses and 17 were attributed to prescription opioids.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is often mixed with heroin but is also taken on its own, was linked to 49 deaths in Frederick last year and carfentanil, an even more powerful synthetic opioid, was linked to two overdose deaths in county last year, according to the state report.
While the state’s data is more complete, the sheriff’s office’s data is available almost immediately and can serve as an indication of trends in the epidemic.
For example, as of July, county law enforcement agencies had responded to 186 opioid-related overdoses, 30 of which have been fatal, so far in 2018, putting the county on pace to match last year’s totals.
The worst year for Frederick County by far remained 2016, when sheriff’s deputies compiled a total of 409 overdoses, 54 of which were fatal, from law enforcement agencies across the county.
Those high numbers, while daunting, were even more of a reason to hold events like the Hope for Change fest, said Frederick Alderman Ben MacShane, who attended stopped by the event with his young daughter to chat with advocates and listen to a few songs.
MacShane himself struggled with alcohol addiction years ago, saying he was familiar with the stigma faced by people who need help and support.
“Having 10 years of sobriety myself I’m thrilled to have an event like this in Frederick,” MacShane said. “Anything we can do to bring addiction out into the light and introduce people into recovery.”
Others came to Saturday’s event to seek help of a different kind.
Having recently celebrated four years of sobriety, 35-year-old Cumberland resident Jade Kenney chatted with representatives at a Frederick County Health Department table to get guidance in ensuring her certification as a recovery coach would allow her to take up work with a recovery center.
“I started using at the age of 12 and I’ve been going to meetings since I was 16 because I knew even then that my life was unmanageable, but I didn’t get serious about it until I saw my son lose his father in 2012 to a heroin overdose,” Kenney said.
Seeing her son in pain, Kenney found strength in the need to be there for her children, she said.
Now as she is preparing to begin work as a licensed recovery coach, Kenney said she hopes to see more events like the Hope for Change fest.
“A lot of people just don’t understand what being an addict is like, you’ll even hear some people say things like, ‘Just let them die, who cares?’” Kenney said. “But this is a disease, it’s a disease of the mind, body and spirit.”
Back at the top of the hill, Knight also touched on Kenney’s point that addiction doesn’t just affect the addicts themselves. One of the boxes on the chalkboard reads “I want to DESTROY HEROIN,” in big, bold letters written in bright chalk.
“An 8-year-old boy asked for a chair to stand on so he could write that,” Knight said. “I said to him, ‘What you wrote is beautiful, but can I ask you a question? Have you lost someone because of heroin?’ and his eyes dropped, he wouldn’t look at me, but he nodded.”