- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

ROLLING MEADOWS, Ill. (AP) - A few raindrops fell while local officials made speeches at the Emily’s Prairie dedication ceremony in Rolling Meadows.

Then Pete Jackson took the podium.

As he spoke about the prairie’s namesake — his 18-year-old daughter, Emily Jackson, who died in 2006 after taking OxyContin pain medication — a ray of sunshine pushed through the clouds and lit up the colorful, new prairie behind him.

“It was like it was on cue,” said Ty Lagoni of Barrington, a former Rolling Meadows environmental committee co-chairman who attended the Sept. 21 event. “It was beautiful.”

Emily’s Prairie is the product of a three-year vision by Jackson, Lagoni, the city of Rolling Meadows and a group of local environmentalists to restore a quarter-acre teasel- and buckthorn-covered site along Salt Creek. The site is along the walking path behind Rolling Meadows High School, near the bridge on Barker Avenue.

Jackson, a biologist and Arlington Heights resident, has done similar volunteer projects at the Deer Grove Forest Preserve near Palatine. So when he and Lagoni came across this Rolling Meadows parcel in 2011, they viewed it as a nice but ambitious Earth Day project for the city. It wasn’t going to be Emily’s Prairie.

But then Jackson started to spend hours each week at the site — for two years. It was in the shadow of Emily’s high school, where she had graduated a few months before her death.

Sometimes Jackson showed up alone at the prairie after work to weed and plant, when he wasn’t leading a group of volunteers or scouts. He often would be down on his hands and knees, carefully clearing away weeds from the budding new native prairie plants. He nurtured them, to make sure they were taking hold where invasive nonnative weeds once ruled.

As he worked, Jackson often thought about his daughter, the walks they took together through suburban prairies, and how much she loved the blooming flowers and plants.

So last year, Jackson decided to ask the Rolling Meadows leaders for permission to name the site Emily’s Prairie. They immediately said yes.

“I hope that it can be something that other people who might have lost someone, who are hurting, they can come to this place once in a while and see what’s blooming, and it’ll be therapeutic,” Jackson said. “It’s been therapeutic for me.”

Emily died eight years ago from respiratory depression caused by a single OxyContin pill. Emily had been at a cousin’s house after a family funeral, and the teens raided the medicine cabinet and found a bottle of old pain killers prescribed to her uncle. Emily took one, went to sleep that night and never woke up.

Since her death, Jackson has become an advocate for preventing prescription pain medicine addiction and deaths. His group, Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids, is part of the nationwide Fed Up! coalition that will rally in Washington, D.C., this weekend for more government oversight of opioid pain medications, which are frequently abused. The cause is gaining momentum and political support, including from suburban U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who participated in last year’s rally.

“There are people who need pain killers, no question,” Jackson said. “But we are opioid-crazed in this country. We feel the administration gives it a lot of lip service … but we are losing 17,000 people a year to pain killers, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).”

Just as Jackson has high hopes for action to reduce deaths from prescription pain medication, he also hopes his Emily’s Prairie project will expand. If he can secure additional funds, Jackson might add things like a walking path down to Salt Creek, or more educational signs about the plantings.

He hopes the adjacent schools will use Emily’s Prairie for educational purposes, and maybe students can help maintain it or use it as inspiration for other projects.

Jackson said he was happy to do something positive for the community and, in turn, himself. He feels like Emily is part of the project now.

“We’re a team. She’s the inspiration, and I do the legwork,” he said. “It’s better than going to the cemetery. It’s more positive and uplifting. The cemetery, for me, is sadness. The prairie is a positive place.”

During the dedication ceremony, Rolling Meadows Mayor Tom Rooney said that as people learn the story of Emily’s life and death, they’ll think about her each time they walk or bike past her prairie.

Lagoni praised Jackson for taking a piece of land that was “biologically dead” and turning it into something useful, beneficial and beautiful.

“He made a great idea into a really, really special one,” Lagoni said. “What a great tribute to her.”

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Source: (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald, http://bit.ly/1rpYRiG

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Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com

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