NORTH EAST — More than 70 luminaries arranged in a heart shape served as a centerpiece on the floor of the Gilbert Lighthouse Pavilion in North East Community Park on Saturday night.

It was the scene of the sixth annual Voices of Hope Overdose Memorial Vigil of Cecil County and, as is the custom, people who have lost loved ones to drugs encircled those luminaries at the end of the event and prayed communally.

Affixed to many of those bags were photos of people whose lives were cut short by drugs.

Written on most were messages about how much their surviving fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and other relatives loved them and missed them.

The luminary prepared by Elkton-area resident Anita Cornett, 52, was similar, to a degree.

There was a photo of her handsome, smiling son — Mark Alan Mellinger Jr. — on one side of the bag. In the margins was this message: “Marky, my baby boy, I love U 4 ever. RIP.” The “O” in the word “love” was made with a heart.

On the other side, however, was a stark photo of her son’s gravestone accompanied by this message, “Drugs are for real!”

Mellinger, 30, died from a drug overdose on Jan. 21, 2018, while he was living in a Chester, Pa., halfway house, where there was supposed to be 24-hour monitoring and drug-testing.

An autopsy revealed that he had heroin, fentanyl and cocaine in his system. Mellinger left two children behind, in addition to several other family members.

“If putting a gravestone on it stuns some people, then so be it. I hope it knocks some sense into people, so they will think, ‘That could be my gravestone or a loved one’s gravestone,’” Cornett said.

She continued, “It’s being realistic. It is what it is. Drugs are killing people left and right. It’s mind-boggling. Their loved ones are left behind, to mourn and grieve forever.”

Cornett’s intent was two-fold: To warn people to never try drugs, because a person cannot get addicted to something he or she has never had, and to urge those battling addiction to seek help.

“It’s just sad for so many people here. It’s heartbreaking,” remarked Cornett, who told the Cecil Whig that Mellinger’s fatal overdose occurred 344 days after his adored older brother, Nick Sloan, 31, was killed in a T-bone crash while returning home from a vacation.

In addition to memorializing those who lost their lives to overdoses, the goal of Saturday’s vigil was to raise awareness of drug addiction and to remove the stigma that comes with it, according to Elkton resident Jennifer Tuerke, who is chief operating officer with Voices of Hope.

“We come together tonight to show that these lives mattered. They had friends and family members who loved them,” Tuerke stressed, while addressing the estimated 100 people who turned out for the event.

Noting that County Executive Alan McCarthy and Councilman Al Miller were in attendance, she urged people to lobby for more drug education, peer support and more availability of treatment programs.

“Tell them your stories, and also advocate beyond this day. Push for change, so this doesn’t have to happen to another family,” Tuerke said.

McCarthy spoke with several vigil attendees who lost loved ones to drug overdoses, he said.

“I believe education is a very important component. We need to continue to raise awareness. It is a social problem. It is a medical issue in Cecil County, throughout the state and in our nation as a whole,” McCarthy commented.

Miller said he also spoke with several people who lost loved ones to drug overdoses.

“Mostly, I listened to what they had to say. I don’t have all the answers, but it’s important to learn from their experiences,” Miller said.

During the vigil, Miller met a man who lost his brother to drugs, he said. That man wants to help people battling addiction, in an effort to prevent fatal overdoses from happening to them, but he doesn’t know how to go about doing it, Miller added.

“He helps at his church, but he wants to do something that will reach farther into the county. That’s where we need to raise awareness even more and have a point-person in Cecil County who can direct people who want to help or (who) are seeking help. You have to have all the pieces in place.”

North East-area resident Brenda Whitt agreed that increasing education about drugs and addiction and raising awareness of the problem are key.

Whitt’s son, Jason Edward Ford, 31, died from a heroin overdose on Dec. 18, 2018, two months after he had been released from jail, where he had been clean for approximately one year.

“I think I was naïve. He just got out of jail, so I thought it (the drug addiction) was all over. He was looking forward to the future and was talking about taking training to be a (corrections) guard. A prison guard had inspired him,” Whitt said, adding, “I thought he was moving on with his life, that it was all behind him, but then he relapsed.”

Wearing personalized Healing Hearts T-shirts that had a silkscreen image of Ford on their backs, several of Whitt’s relatives also attended the vigil — including her other son, 33-year-old Michael Ford, who has been in recovery for two years after going through treatment programs.

“I’ve been in and out of recovery since 2013. I am stubborn. I always thought I could do it (recovery) different, by myself, but the results were always the same,” Michael said.

However, profoundly impacted by the loss of his brother to drugs, Michael’s commitment to remaining sober is solid after his release from jail in July 2018.

“When I was in jail (in the past), I would think the first thing I will do when I get out is get high,” Michael said, adding, “But this time, I no longer have the desire to use drugs and I know that good days are going to come. No matter what, using drugs is not an option.”

According to Whitt, Michael and the rest of the family members in attendance, Saturday night’s overdose vigil gave them a comforting sense of solidarity.

Bob Gauss, a U.S. Marines veteran who wound up homeless on the streets of Baltimore because his alcohol abuse and cocaine addiction, agreed with the assessment by the Whitt family.

Gauss, 63, battled his addictions from the mid-1980s through 2008, when a cancer diagnosis put him in the Perry Point VA Medical Center and set him on the road to recovery.

“I was comfortable being uncomfortable. Panhandling, I called that my profession. I had morals, so fortunately I did not steal or rob,” Gauss said, noting that addiction had caused him to lose his printing business.

Gauss spent 45 days in the hospital, where he underwent chemotherapy and other treatment.

“Cancer was a blessing. I was sick. I was tired. And I no longer wanted to get high,” he said.

Today, Gauss is a Voices of Hope peer support specialist, who meets with those considering recovery to explain options available to them, which yields a double benefit.

“The more you do for others, the more you do for yourself,” he said.

Gauss attended Saturday night’s vigil as a recovering addict — and as a survivor of a loved one who lost his life to drugs. His older brother died from an overdose about 15 years ago.

“This helps so much because we know that we are not alone. We are here to support one another,” Gauss, with tears welling in his eyes, explained in a choked voice.

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