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updated: 8/30/2012 2:03 PM

17 groups unite for anti-drug vigil in Schaumburg

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  • Stephanie Schmitz of Schaumburg assembles candles at her home in preparation for tonight's vigil at Roosevelt University.

       Stephanie Schmitz of Schaumburg assembles candles at her home in preparation for tonight's vigil at Roosevelt University.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 
 

They've each held small events around the suburbs for the past few years, but tonight, 17 suburban groups will unite for a candlelight vigil in Schaumburg to memorialize those who have died of drug overdoses and to advocate for lifesaving solutions.

The vigil, which begins at 6:30 p.m. in the front rotunda at Roosevelt University, marks the first large observance in Illinois of International Overdose Awareness Day. Hundreds of people are expected to attend, some from as far away as Peoria, and anyone who has lost a loved one to an overdose is welcome to come and bring a photo of that person.

Facilitated by the university's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, the vigil also will feature training sessions on the overdose prevention drug Naloxone (also known as Narcan), information about the Emergency Medical Services Access Act, which grants immunity to people for small drug possessions if they call 911 to report an overdose, as well as other memorial and advocacy presentations.

Saving Lives Courage Awards will be handed out to several suburban groups and organizations. The recipients will include Jon Humphreys and Chris Merkes, Neuqua Valley High School alumni who just one month ago launched the awareness group Open Hearts, Open Eyes on Facebook -- the night after one of their best friends, John Kacena, 20, of Naperville, died of a heroin overdose. Kacena's mother, Caroline, also will be honored.

The online group, with more than 5,100 members, is attempting to reach young people with its educational efforts.

"Usually, you see parents trying to do something. Finally, kids are saying they want to put an end of it," said Humphreys, of Naperville, noting that there have been at least eight heroin overdose deaths in his community in the past year and a half. "No one has really put a face on it. They just say it's bad, don't do it. It's not until someone passes away until you pay attention."

That's how Terri Dudar of Carpentersville feels about it, too. Dudar also will be receiving a Saving Lives Courage Award for her fundraising efforts to increase Naloxone training, following her son Jason's overdose death almost four years ago.

"Unless it knocks on your door, you really don't pay attention," Dudar said. "It's something people need to be educated about ... and not just close their eyes and hope it doesn't show up at their doorstep."

Dudar's been working in the Fox Valley area to spread the word on how the drug can sneak into, and destroy, lives.

"I don't know if we can reach people, but I have to try. As a mother who lost a child, I just don't want his death to be in vain," she said. "Each of our wishes (among groups at the vigil) is to save one life. And if we can do that, every bit of our effort was worth it."

Other recipients of the Saving Lives Courage Award include Buffalo Grove native Chelsea Laliberte, whose raised awareness efforts through her Live4Lali organization in memory of her brother, Alex; and Karen Hanneman, of Naperville, who lobbied for the passage of the Emergency Medical Services Act after losing her 21-year-old son, Justin, to an overdose. She spreads the message with the motto, "Don't Run. Call 911. You can save a life."

As the deadly heroin epidemic continues its hold on the suburbs, many small groups have formed in the past few years in an effort to take action on a local level. They're everywhere -- from the Hearts of Hope in Geneva, to Nicholas' Gift of Hope in Lincolnshire and the GRASP groups in McHenry County, Hoffman Estates and Joliet. Each group has a slightly different focus, but all share a common goal to raise awareness.

"The people involved in this want to do something to change it. But to change things, we need to be unified. Or else we're just doing little things here and little things there," said Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. "We need to strategize on this issue, and figure out where can we make a difference and where we can't make a difference?"

Besides tonight's candlelight vigil, a few other events are planned in the next 24 hours around the suburbs for International Overdose Awareness Day, including:

• An informational rally from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at the four-way stop at Maple and Washington streets in Carpentersville.

• Handing out ribbons and information at 7 a.m. Friday at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville, as students arrive for schoo.

• A tattoo/piercing fundraiser Sept. 9 at Exploited Tattoo in Fox Lake for local training and distribution of Naxolone.

Earlier this week, former NBA player Chris Herren spoke with students and faculty at Benedictine University in Lisle about his addiction to pain killers and heroin. Earlier this month, Gov. Patrick Quinn declared Friday as National Overdose Awareness Day in Illinois.

"Illinois has more events going on than any other state in the country," added consortium director Kathie Kane-Willis.

The most important thing about tonight's vigil, group members say, is that it's unifying them and strengthening their voices.

Kane-Willis said the work will continue after Thursday, and they hope to harness the power and make a difference.

"There are so many groups starting to interlink and interweave in interesting ways," she said. "We're going to continue to move the process forward."

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