Traveling tombstones highlight heroin's toll
09/05/2014 3:05 AM
09/05/2014 3:05 AM
CHICAGO - From the porch of her suburban Lombard home, Audrey Albright watched a sedan roll to a stop as the driver peered at an unusual display in Albright's front yard: dozens of spray-painted Styrofoam tombstones and three banners decrying the toll of drug overdose deaths.
"That's what cars always do," said Albright, who lost her son Michael Savastano to a heroin overdose in 2012. "They slow down and take a look."
That's the idea behind the exhibit, which is traveling from yard to yard this summer in an effort to raise awareness of a scourge that has bedeviled the Chicago area for years with few signs of relenting.
Those who are hosting the tombstones say that even after hundreds of opiate-related deaths across the area, many people remain ignorant of the power of heroin and narcotic prescription pills - just as they themselves were before the drugs brought tragedy to their homes.
"It's not only the kids we've got to get to," said Cheryl Cummings, a suburban Elmhurst resident whose son Spencer died of a heroin overdose in 2012. "We also have to get to the whole community, because people just have their head in the sand. They think it doesn't happen in Elmhurst. It does. It happens everywhere."
The tombstones debuted last year at a vigil put on by Stop Overdose Illinois, a group that trains people in the use of an overdose-stopping medication called naloxone. Kathleen Kane-Willis, a Roosevelt University researcher who is part of the group, said they symbolize the roughly 100 people nationwide who die each day from drug overdoses.
But the vigil's location at Roosevelt's suburban Schaumburg campus put the tombstones far away from the main road, Kane-Willis said. This year, she said, some members of the group decided to bring the visual message to some of the communities where drugs have already done their damage.
"This is a really smart way to get people to pay attention, in a way a vigil or balloon release or things like that won't," Kane-Willis said.
Cassandra Wingert, who has been transporting and setting up the tombstones, said they were first placed at the suburban Wauconda fire station a few weeks ago before moving to a 5K run and a series of private suburban homes.
On a recent Saturday, the tombstones were set up at a walkathon in suburban Addison dedicated to the memory of Louie Miceli, who died of a heroin overdose in 2012. The display included a sign with a message aimed at families already dealing with drug addiction:
"Opiate overdose is REVERSIBLE! Naloxone saves lives!"
Debi Andonoplas, Miceli's aunt, said while the medication has become standard issue for area police officers in recent years, many drug users' parents still don't know about it.
"There are people we know who, after their young children left rehab, never even knew about this," she said. "If someone happens to be with them when they're overdosing, (naloxone) can save them until the authorities get there."
Marian Huhman, an assistant communication professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, specializes in social marketing campaigns that involve public health issues, and said a bold image like a tombstone certainly can leave an impression.
But she added that strong images run the risk of going too far, causing people to tune out the message rather than absorb it.
"The real crux is figuring out what the emotional drivers are that will get a segment of the population to change their behavior," she said.
Albright said it was indeed hard to measure the effects of the display. Aside from cars slowing to take a closer look, she said she has had one conversation with a neighbor who encouraged her to keep speaking out.
She hoped, though, that the tombstones would prompt people in her community to educate themselves.
"I have to think back before my son was involved in heroin and what I knew, which was absolutely nothing," Albright said. "I think that if they read the paper they should know something, but I think we need to keep stressing (that the drug is) addictive and deadly."
The tombstones will conclude their tour at an Aug. 30 vigil at Busse Woods in suburban Elk Grove Village, where speakers will address the heroin issue and experts will train people in the use of naloxone. From there, the tombstones might appear at a few one-day events but otherwise will be put away until better weather returns (Styrofoam doesn't hold up well in autumn rain and winter snow).
Wingert said one measure of the traveling exhibit's success will be if the vigil, which is promoted on a banner that accompanies the tombstones, attracts a big crowd. But they've already proven so popular within the recovery community that some are looking at making multiple sets out of sturdier material, she said.
"We definitely would like to see there be fewer (tombstones), but so long as this is an issue, and so long as there are continuing deaths, we would like to continue to have them travel," she said.
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