White flag display along Atwood Avenue brings awareness to fatal overdoses
MADISON, Wis. — Across the street from the Olbrich Botanical Gardens on Atwood Avenue, people have paused in their tracks to explore the hundreds of white flags on display.
The flags are a part of a project that Safe Communities started to bring awareness to the epidemic of overdose deaths.
“It just breaks your heart, really,” said one woman who stopped by.
Each flag has someone’s name, a message and the year they were born, along with the year they died.
“These people are human beings that were kind, loving, good-hearted, artistic, creative, funny people– all lost. Each of these flags represent a stone in a pond where it has rippled out and affected their friends, their families. Everyone who loved them is now dealing with profound loss,” said Mary Rauwolf, who has a flag on display for her son, Conrad, who died of an overdose in 2015.
Conrad was 22 when he died. Rauwolf described him as a smart, funny, hilarious, caring person. She said the past four years without him have been difficult.
“It’s been painful. We miss him every day,” she said.
Rauwolf said Conrad lived with anxiety and bipolar disorder. She said he would talk about how it was difficult to navigate his everyday life. Rauwolf said Conrad sought treatment six different times, but none of the programs he was in helped him with his mental battles.
“It was next to impossible for him to stay sober under those circumstances, next to impossible,” Rauwolf said.
Rauwolf’s battle is a fight that many people deal with every day. It’s the reason why Kristina Vaccaro, the drug poisoning program coordinator and recovery coach co-supervisor at Safe Communities, started the white flag movement.
The program is an attempt “to give affected loved ones a place to come out and remember and memorialize and be seen and heard,” Vaccaro said. “We hear a lot about data, but we really want to hear and see the faces of the loved ones that have been lost.”
Vaccaro said she was formerly using opioids and knows that she could have been a name on one of these flags. She has not used opioids in six years.
While Vaccaro creates a network for people to connect and lean on each other through the white flag project, Rauwolf said she wished she didn’t have to be a part of the network and would give anything to have her son back.
“It is very bittersweet because I don’t feel like there should be new flags being added to this and yet there are, every single day,” Rauwolf said. She added that seeing this flag display is emotional and “painful from the standpoint that he has been reduced to a flag.”
To have the name of a loved one who died from an overdose become part of the white flag display, you can stop by the Safe Communities office to get one.
On Saturday, Safe Communities is hosting an event by the white flag display for International Overdose Awareness Day. Information about this event can be found by following this link: https://www.facebook.com/events/482560149186122/.
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