About 120 people gathered Wednesday night in the banquet hall at the Urbana Volunteer Fire Department for the Frederick County state’s attorney’s third annual overdose and prevention vigil.
Aimed at spreading awareness of the dangers of substance abuse and providing a stage for those who have lost loved ones to addiction, the event drew law enforcement leaders and health officials from around the county, recovery groups, activists and others affected by addiction.
The theme of this year’s vigil, as in previous years, was “In This Together,” to express the importance of the community coming together to grieve and openly discuss the threat of substance abuse and addiction. Even more importantly, the vigil allowed people to remember their loved ones, said State’s Attorney Charlie Smith.
“And that’s such a critical part of not only healing, but it’s also a critical part of prevention, too,” Smith told the audience at the start of the ceremony.
Jess Nunemaker helped to organize the first vigil in 2016 after working with the Frederick County Drug Treatment Court for the state’s attorney’s office. Nunemaker hoped to offer families of those struggling with addiction a chance to express and process their emotions at a difficult time of the year.
“It’s intended to be very healing, and we choose to do it at this time of year because, whether you have someone who is struggling with addiction or if you’ve lost someone, the holidays can be a very hard time,” Nunemaker said.
Throughout the event, a steady stream of photographs of residents who have died from overdoses were displayed in a loop on a projector screen behind the speaker’s lectern.
About 20 photos were added this year, along with those featured in previous years, which are reused each year to keep alive the memories of those lost. Sixty-four photos were featured this year, Nunemaker said.
Several guest speakers were also invited to Wednesday’s gathering, including former Montgomery County Circuit Judge Marielsa A. Bernard. A onetime committee member on Montgomery County’s Juvenile Drug Court Initiative, Bernard’s experience with drug addiction is far more personal.
At times through tears and choked-back sobs, Bernard related how she learned of her daughter Kate’s death from an overdose from one of her colleagues while she was on the bench in December 2014. At 27, Kate, who had graduated with a double major from the University of Maryland, was six weeks pregnant and had once dreamed of becoming a counselor, Bernard told the crowd.
“This tragedy can happen to anyone, and we all have to work together as a community to stop it,” Bernard said, explaining how at times she would ask herself why such a traumatic death had to happen in her family. “... I ask now, what we can do together to help?”
Speakers like Bernard are vital to another goal of the vigil: to dispel the stigma that prevents so many people dealing with substance abuse or their loved ones from directly addressing the root cause of their suffering, Nunemaker said.
“It puts a face to it, it takes away the stigma, because it can be anybody. ... When you put faces to it and you see it really could be anybody, it could be you or it could be me, it makes it easier for people to get the help they need,” Nunemaker said.
Now, as a senior judge who handles cases all across the region, Bernard said she often finds herself handling drug cases. Despite how difficult it is, she feels an obligation to carry on.
“I feel that Kate is with me, saying, ‘Mom, help these people. You of all people should be able to understand the pain that they’re going through,’” Bernard said.
In addition to the speakers, several nonprofits and addiction recovery service providers attended Wednesday’s event, including the Frederick County Health Department, which offered free training in Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug, to anyone present.
Another group present, CHRIS — which stands for Caring, Healing, Recovery Is Support — formed after Thurmont residents Ed and Karen Schildt lost their son, Chris, to a heroin overdose in 2016.
The Schildts were one of the first families to submit a photo at the very first vigil, Nunemaker said. Seeking a way to get more involved, the couple organized CHRIS: for Family Support in Recovery, as a support group for the families of people struggling with addiction.
Chris Dunn, an EMT for the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services, also spoke briefly at the vigil, outlining some of the progress the state and county have made in ensuring Narcan kits are readily available to residents in recent years.
In closing, Dunn offered a simple request to those present who either suffer from addiction themselves or their family members and support networks.
“I beg you, don’t give up,” Dunn told the gathering. “And don’t give up on them.”