Debbie Dauer has a story to tell, of how she survived substance abuse and how it impacted her and her son.

“He spent nine years with me in active addiction and now 11 years with a recovering mom,” says Dauer, co-founder of IMPACT Recovery Houses in Baltimore. “But throughout the hurdles, we have had an amazing life. And because of the gift of sobriety, I have been able to give back to the community and help others stay clean.”

On the morning of Sept. 16, Dauer will be among approximately 600 volunteers who will gather at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville for the Nikki Perlow Foundation’s inaugural Forest of Hope project.

Fifty teams led by recovering substance abusers will participate. Participants will depict the journeys of their team leaders by painting their stories on trees in the park’s forest.

The event will raise funds for the nonprofit foundation through pledges made on behalf of project participants. So far, more than $100,000 has been raised.

The foundation is the largest nonprofit in the Mid-Atlantic region to focus solely on addiction and recovery, while offering financial support to those struggling with the disease. It also provides emotional and logistical support to families, as well as educational programs related to awareness and substance abuse prevention.

Gary Perlow, the foundation’s president and founder, believes the Forest of Hope event is the first project of its kind. He hopes it will be replicated in communities across the country.

“Today, overdose is the no. 1 killer of people under the age of 50,” says Perlow, uncle of the foundation’s namesake. “It’s killing more people than anything else every single day.”

In July of 2007, Nikki Perlow died from an accidental drug overdose just a week before her 22nd birthday.

“Nikki grew up in Baltimore County, and Oregon Ridge Park is right in our backyard,” says Gary Perlow. “The county has been tremendously supportive of our cause and mission. We wanted to pick a place that was public and well-traveled, and Oregon Ridge Park is just that.”

Perlow says the foundation’s primary goal is “to get people the right type of treatment and the right type of knowledge about the disease, to share with the public that addiction is a disease but that there is another side to the disease and that side is recovery. For every one of those horror stories about overdose on TV, there are a multitude of success stories.”

A Lifelong Battle

To bring the Forest of Hope to life, the foundation teamed up with Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, a Baltimore-based, internationally known artist.

Schlossberg-Cohen, who has organized community art projects in the Baltimore area and around the world, conducted multiple workshops with the teams, helping team leaders to tell their stories through visual art.

After the original works of art were completed in the workshops, Schlossberg-Cohen drew templates of the artworks on trees at Oregon Ridge. On the day of the event, teams will use 100 percent eco-friendly paint to fill in the templates with color.

Accompanying each painting will be a plaque with an artist’s statement explaining the work.

“The people involved in this project are remarkable human beings,” says Schlossberg-Cohen. “There are many people who have battled addiction, crossed over to recovery and sustained that recovery, which is not easy. The battle is generally lifelong, and we thought it would be spectacular to use the tree, which is a symbol of life, hope and rebirth but also fragile and needs nurturing.”

Perlow says he hopes the Forest of Hope “will help break the stigma attached to addiction.”

Says Dauer: “Individuals living a clean and sober life after struggling with addiction are the invisible people mixed in society anonymously. I think when people see this forest, they won’t be able to turn their heads away from addiction anymore. There is no discrimination in addiction — it can happen to anyone — and we need to raise more awareness about the disease.”

A team leader, Dauer says the Forest of Hope “will be a living, breathing symbol and constant reminder that there are millions of people living clean and sober lives.

“To see the finished project of the Forest of Hope makes me filled with so much gratitude,” she says. “To have a permanent exhibit about recovery at a national park is amazing, and I can’t wait to take it all in.”

Following the tree painting, the foundation will host a Recovery Celebration Picnic at Oregon Ridge, which is open to the public. The picnic begins at 1 p.m. and costs $25 for adults and $10 for children. At the end of the picnic, attendees will have an opportunity to tour the Forest of Hope. For tickets to the picnic and for information about the Nikki Perlow Foundation and the Forest of Hope, visit

Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

Top Photo: Participants prepare for the Forest of Hope event. (Photos courtesy of the Nikki Perlow Foundation)




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