Tracy Van Beek lifts up a bed as she and other parents look for hidden drugs in a model girl’s bedroom at Weston High on Thursday, Jan. 19, in Arlington. Van Beek and other parents and kids attended the “Not in My House!” event, put on by the Arlington Drug Awareness Coalition. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Parents learn to find kids’ drugs and spot signs of use

ARLINGTON — Parents dug through the laundry basket, lifted the mattress and combed through dresser drawers.

They found syringes in a little black purse. More of them stuffed into socks at the bottom of the hamper. A sunglasses case held needles, a spoon, cotton, tubing and a lighter. The top of a hairbrush unscrewed to reveal a hidden compartment, as did the ends of batteries. Hiding places concealed heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine.

The drugs were fake, cooked up with harmless ingredients in Stephanie Ambrose’s kitchen. Ambrose has been the school resource officer in Arlington for three years and she did her best to make realistic-looking drugs. She sprayed the “heroin” with vinegar to imitate the smell.

Volunteers set up models of two bedrooms, a teen boy’s and girl’s, in Weston High School. They hid drugs and the tools to use them in places police say are common among young users.

“Basically everything you see, there are drugs in there,” Ambrose said.

She and another officer bought containers online, including one disguised as a pop can and another as a water bottle with a hidden compartment in the middle behind the logo. For less than $50, someone could have hiding places all over the room.

The “Not in My House!” events put on by the Arlington Drug Awareness Coalition brought people together Thursday at Weston and Lakewood high schools for hands-on lessons in how to spot the signs of drug use. Guests searched the bedrooms, organizations provided information on local resources and police showed actual drugs from their cases.

For Dana McCollum, finding drugs in the girl’s room was painfully familiar.

Her oldest daughter, who is 33, has been an addict for 14 years, using heroin, meth and possibly other drugs. She’s homeless. When McCollum drives around Smokey Point, she finds herself searching for her daughter’s face, hoping for a glimpse to know she’s alive.

For a while, her daughter and grandchildren, ages 3, 5 and 14, lived with McCollum. After the children found razor blades, straws and powder, she kicked her daughter out. Now, McCollum hopes she can help her grandchildren, who struggle with why their mom has been in and out of their lives.

“The addiction, it just tears one person down at a time,” McCollum said.

Her daughter’s gone to treatment but can’t find a program to help her stay clean. She returns to the same group of friends and starts using again. There are services to help addicts, but they aren’t well timed with each other and there are wait lists, McCollum said. Gaps in short- and long-term care invite relapses.

McCollum knew others at Thursday’s event who have addicts in their family.

“We all look normal,” she said. “But we don’t feel normal. There’s nothing normal about a family having to deal with this.”

Lisa Martin’s 22-year-old daughter also is homeless and addicted. Martin, of Arlington, urges parents to learn the signs and intervene early.

“All of the items in the hiding spots I’ve seen in my own child’s room at some point,” she said.

Her daughter’s first job was at a fast food restaurant. A co-worker provided her heroin.

“It was one time and that was it,” Martin said. “Now it’s been four years.”

Her message to parents is to pay attention and have compassion for addicts because they are somebody’s family. She reminds them never to give up. Their loved ones are worth it.

Missy Gerst of Arlington has built a personal mission around her experience with drug addiction in her family. Gerst recently was on “Dr. Phil.” She wants to work with addicts and their families to teach them how to be a unit, set healthy boundaries and love each other through the hard times.

Learning that someone you love is addicted to drugs is overwhelming, she said. People want to help but don’t know how. They often struggle with the stigma associated with drug abuse.

“There’s no shame,” she said. “The world is going to give them enough of that. I won’t.”

Members of the Arlington Drug Awareness Coalition hope “Not in My House!” gave people ideas and support to prevent drug abuse in their homes. Many users start in their teens, so catching the habit early is crucial.

“I hope parents are empowered to look and not be afraid to ask questions and get their hands dirty to stop the problem,” said Jen Egger, one of the coalition’s board members. “If you can find something the first time it’s hidden, you’re so far ahead of the game.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439;

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