Trees of Life

Waller’s tree replacement
helps ease grief of lost son

She plans to provide six trees a year
in memory of her son

Teresa Waller of Madison, Ind., was suffering a deep personal loss due to the death of her only son when she realized one way to help herself heal was to work to help replenish trees being lost at Clifty Falls State Park campground.
“This partnership is mutually beneficial,” said Clifty Falls Interpretive Naturalists Stefan Johnson. “When she approached us, we jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. We have lost trees in the campground because of the emerald ash borer, and some of the campsites are no longer shaded. It benefits Teresa in memory of her son and benefits us.”
The project will start small but continue for several years.
“We are thankful for whatever help we can get to be able to begin the process of replanting the campground,” Johnson continued. “Our visitors in the future can enjoy more shaded areas in campground.”

Photo by John Sheckler

Teresa Waller and Clifty Falls Naturalist Stefan Johnson pose with a photo of Waller’s late son, Alex, who died of a drug overdose last year at age 23.

Waller will be bringing several varieties of trees to plant, including white oak, honey locust, tulip poplar, shibumi oak, sycamore and willow oak.
“It also gives more diversity of native species in campground,” said Johnson. “So in a sense, we are creating an arbor in the campground and in the park with future generations of native trees.”
“We will start with six trees this year,” said Waller. “We likely will plant the same number every fall with the goal of having a tree for each year of Alex’s life. We decided how many trees we can reasonably plant each year and decided to start with a small group.”
“Part of what struck me about the project is that we have a tangible impact because trees are a natural thing, so it is literally a memorial.”
Waller lost her son last year to a drug overdose due to a synthetic opiate bought legally on line from China.
Waller has fond memories of her son.
“He was born at King’s Daughters’ Hospital in Madison,” she said. “He attended school at Pope John Elementary and graduated from Shawe (Memorial High School) in 2012. He was a newspaper carrier and a cub scout and took swimming lessons at Crystal Beach from age 9 months to age 9.”
Perhaps Waller started the tree project because her son loved nature and the state park.
“He enjoyed scouring the riverbank for ‘treasures,’ ” she recalled. “He loved Clifty Falls State Park, particularly the hikes down to the Falls.”
Alex would have turned 24 on Dec. 30, 2017.
His father, Robert Feltner, retired as an RN from King’s Daughters’ Hospital in January and has donated a collection of local artwork to the hospital in Alex’s name.
At the time of his death, Alex was living in Bloomington and attending Ivy Tech Community College, studying computer networking.
The drug was a research chemical known as U-47700 that recently dominated the headlines in a dozen states. There was a move to ban the newly popular drug, and the Drug Enforcement Administration announced plans to assign it Schedule I status.
Sometimes referred to simply as U4, the super-strong synthetic opioid has been cited as the cause of dozens of deaths across the U.S. in the last several months, including, most notably, the overdose death of the rock star Prince, caused by a “cocktail” that included Fentanyl and U-47700.
“Our community is actually suffering a great loss from drug abuse and suicides,” said Waller. “The stigma of addiction and shame associated with that in families is one thing that prevents people from getting help.”
She said she feels it is the same with the trees in the park.
“When you go there and see one after the another of the trees is cut down, it is devastating,” said Waller. “Like drugs, people aren’t fully aware of what is happening. Lots of people don’t want to see it. Both are a feeling of hopelessness and getting worse.”
Waller suggests families with substance abuse issues should be aware of the Substance Abuse Committee of the Healthy Community Initiative of King’s Daughters’ Hospital.
“I won’t shy away from what happened with Alex because that is part of the problem,” she said. “It is like the trees. By planting new trees, it’s not like we can replace that exact tree or replace a new human being, but it is an opportunity to take care of the trees and people who are still here.”
The planting of trees has a deeper spiritual meaning for Waller.
“To plant these saplings and then when I see them growing, to me it is symbolic of those in our community who are suffering and of our efforts to help them recover and grow stronger,” she said.
Waller developed her deep feelings about trees when she was at an event and saw a mother hug a tree when she knew her son was dead.
“It was a deeper relationship,” she said. “Mother Earth has lost a lot of her children, and a lot are trees.”
She feels people are falling, too.
“People are not able to get the help they need to understand the reason they take the drugs,” she continued. “It is a mental health issue. We must bring this out of the shadows. It isn’t someone else’s problem.”
The Salvation Army at 331 E. Main St., in Madison offers a list of resources for help with substance abuse issues. They can be reached at (812) 265-2157.

Other resources include the following:
• Narcotics Anonymous. www.naindiana.org. 24-hour hotline: (317) 875-5459
• Indiana Recovery Alliance. indianarecoveryalliance.org (812) 567-2337
• Refuge Recovery is a mindfulness-based addiction recovery community in Louisville, Ky., that practices and utilizes Buddhist philosophy as the foundation of the recovery process. For more information, visit: www.refugerecovery.org.

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