Mother-daughter pair host drug assembly


By Sara Heimlich, Editor-in-Chief

When students shuffled into the auditorium Feb. 6 for an assembly, they expected another police officer discussing car crashes or a psychologist talking about depression. Instead they found an MCPS mother and her wheelchair-bound child.


Montgomery College student Lea Edgecomb told the true narrative of her life nine years ago; She was a freshman at Quince Orchard High School, a cheerleader for football games and was surrounded by a solid friend group. However on the inside, she was suffering from depression. After a suicide attempt and smoking marijuana with a friend, Edgecomb snorted heroin, which resulted in resuscitation from a cardiac arrest and eight minutes of being pronounced dead. This was followed by a month-long coma. Although she was lucky enough to wake up, the heroin landed her in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic.


“I look at high school students and I always see myself,” Edgecomb said. “I think of how much I needed someone to talk to me about this. I think it would’ve made a difference in what I would’ve done instead.”


Amy Smith, parent of CHS 2015 graduate Jake Smith, 2017 graduate Max Smith and sophomore Noah Smith, voluntarily organized the assembly. After hearing about the impact this mother and daughter pair had when speaking at a local synagogue, she decided it was something CHS students would benefit from.


It’s very rewarding to be in the school and to help kids who are part of my village,” Smith said. “I grew up at CHS and raised my kids here. As a parent I want to see all of these kids reach their full potential.”


In 2013, Smith helped to organize a demonstration called “Every Fifteen Minutes” at CHS. It involved firefighters and a staged car accident with students agreeing to play the roles of the victims. These students would return to classes for the remainder of the day dressed in ghoulish makeup and were unresponsive to their classmates. Police officers would read their obituary to the class.


“I loved seeing the students react to a message that was so dramatic and so important,” Smith said. “So I made a commitment then that I would try to bring programming like this every couple of years. If we change just one kid’s mind when making a tough decision then all of this is worth it.”


Through the PTSA, Smith proposed the plan to principal Joan Benz, who readily approved the plan and made room for it in the school calendar.


It was very worth taking class time because this is the ultimate education,” Benz said.


The schedule was arranged so that half the school would be in the auditorium at either time.

According to Benz, Edgecomb and her mother, Lisa Essich, asked Benz to keep the assembly relatively as a way of adding shock value to the message. However, word still got around CHS.


According to junior Payam Moayed, he and his friends had heard rumors that it was going to be about JUULing (e-cigarettes) in school bathrooms.


“I don’t mind the rumors because we are talking about starting conversations,” Smith said. “Students come in with a blank slate. It’s really hard to explain these things in advance because so much of the impact is seeing her in the wheelchair and seeing her mom break down. They see the emotional and the physical.”


In addition, keeping the assembly quiet was a way of preventing students from skipping it altogether. Skipping school has been a problem that CHS has seen with “Mental Health” days, where direct instruction is paused for the day in exchange for healthful activities.


I think [keeping it quiet] was beneficial because in the first assembly students did not skip it,”  senior Isabel Namath said. “But for the second one they were probably more likely to skip it because their friends told them about what it was.”


In both assemblies, however, this method seems to have been effective; almost all seats in the auditorium were filled. Even if word may have spread, students stuck around to hear what Edgecomb and Essich had to say.


“I thought it was really cool that the school was trying to communicate the harms of drug use through methods other than just a general lecture assembly,” senior Shayna Gutridge said. “It was good to hear from someone’s first hand perspective because it made it more relatable and real.”


About 18 months after the incident, Edgecomb turned to her mother and asked her to help find opportunities for her to speak about her experience. She felt a spiritual pull, drawn the idea of helping others as her purpose.


“Lea can relate to the audience,” Essich said. “She’s not a policeman spitting off numbers. It’s someone their age.”


At the end of Edgecomb and Essich’s speeches, there was time allotted for students in the audience to ask questions to be answered by the pair.


“I thought the Q&A portion was really risky considering she was speaking to a bunch of high schoolers, but I appreciate how brave she was for doing that because some people had genuine questions,” Gutridge said. “I was of course disappointed when some of my peers asked rude and ignorant questions, but I can’t say that it was unexpected.”


Some questions brought quiet laughs through the audience or led into side conversations, drawing attention away from the actual answers.


We’ve come across it before where kids are making jokes,” Essich said. “A couple people [at CHS] came up after to apologize [for each other]. But I didn’t think anything was inappropriate. It was wonderful to speak at CHS.”


In some classes after lunch, teachers chose to lead class discussions about the topics brought up in the assembly.


“It’s a lot more powerful if the students are connecting the dots,” Smith said. “They’re not going to take what a parent or administration says at face value. I actually like the idea of presenting information and letting students figure out the implications. That’s where the real learning starts. If it starts a conversation, I think it’s a victory.”


But not every class discussion seemed to hit home for students.


No one really cares about other people at our school and it’s hard to change that,” Moayed said. “Talking about it just causes drama where the people who care get really upset and the people who don’t care just joke about it.”


In some cases, students found it hard to relate to the topic of heroin, and therefore connect with the assembly as a whole.


I didn’t understand why we had the assembly on heroin because so many other drugs like Xanax, cocaine, and nicotine (JUULs and stuff like that) are so much more prevalent at CHS,” Namath said.


In class discussions, this question came up a lot.


I thought she and her mom did a great job speaking on an extremely difficult topic, but I wish that CHS would’ve done more to connect all she said back to the students,” Gutridge said. “Specifically, I think it was a missed opportunity on CHS’ part to not address mental health considering all of the horrible tragedies that have happened in our school and community.”


However, according to Essich, in the early stages of her and Edgecomb’s talks, it was very difficult to get schools to agree to have them speak because the “opioid problem was less out of control” and schools “weren’t ready” to have the talk about heroin. Now, MCPS schools have welcomed their assembly, and the duo has spoken at over 30 venues since, including worship centers, schools, rehabilitation centers and public forums.


You might think ‘it happens to other people, not me,’” said Edgecomb at the end of the assembly. “But we’re not as invincible as we think. And I’m here to suffer the consequences.”