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Ginny Atwood, 25, says she used to hate running, so while it is significant that she just completed the 38th annual Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 27, the reason why she did it is even more remarkable.

“It was my first-ever marathon, and I did it for my brother,” she said.

Her brother, Chris Atwood, died from a heroin overdose at age 21 in February.

“I was the one who found him in our home,” she said. “My entire family was heartbroken, but a day or two after he died, I knew we were going to start a foundation in his name. We couldn’t just let this go.”

On Oct. 27, Ginny and three friends ran the 26.2-mile Marine Corps Marathon as “Team Chris,” raising $21,000 for the Chris Atwood Foundation and dedicating mile 21 to Chris.

“I originally wanted to host a shorter fun run, but in the end I realized that recovery from addiction is a marathon and not a sprint,” she said.

Ginny and Chris Atwood attended South Lakes High School, but because of the differences in their ages, they were never there together. Ginny said her brother began heading down a dangerous path his freshman year, when he was only 14.

“He started getting in trouble,” she said. “Just minor vandalism and things that we thought were just ‘boys being boys.’”

But then she said it became more serious, and noticeable.

“He began drinking, dabbling in minor drug use, and eventually by the time he was 15 he had rapidly gone downhill, losing a lot of weight and just increasingly not being the bright, funny engaging and outgoing Chris that we knew. That’s when we found out he was a heroin addict,” she said.

Ginny said Chris went to rehab, but struggled with his addiction on and off for the next five years.

“I believe his brain was still developing at the young age that he got hooked, and even though he matured a lot, he just couldn’t shake those demons because they had taken control of him at such a young age,” she said.

In late November 2012, Ginny said Chris went off his maintenance medication — a substance similar to methadone — for good.

“He wanted to get over it completely and just stop,” she said. “Ironically, that’s what did him in.”

Equally ironic, she said, was that after her brother’s fatal heroin overdose in February, many former addicts told her that Chris had inspired them to quit their own heroin habits.

“People came up to us and said that Chris had saved their lives,” she said. “He was volunteering at a local homeless shelter and apparently had an effect on many people there. In addition, he also volunteered at our church and one day found a homeless heroin addict in the bathroom there who said Chris helped him quit. These stories and others inspired us and we knew we had to continue Chris’ giving spirit.”

Ginny Atwood soon helped to found the nonprofit Chris Atwood Foundation, now a member of the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County, The coalition is comprised of more than 50 community organizations that partner as health advocates in a shared vision of making Fairfax County a healthier place, and she currently serves as the foundation’s secretary.

The organization is currently awaiting 501c3 status and compiling a resource guide for hospitals and resource centers and is working with recovery programs at college campuses. It’s main goals are tackling the stigma, shame and secrecy associated with heroin addiction, preventing youth from starting down the addiction path and working to get recovery programs on college campuses, provide better options for fun and sober activities in the addiction community, and supply addicts with recovery educational materials. “The county can only do so much with its limited resources, she said.

“For young adults who return to their community after treatment, recovery support is critical,” said Diane Eckert, executive director of the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County. “They often need a new environment within the community where their peers are not using. To help prevent relapse, stigma within the community also needs to be addressed and minimized to help recovering addicts feel accepted as a whole person and not viewed as just an ‘addict.’”

Atwood says her foundation is focusing on that issue as well.

“We are new and just started, but we are addressing the stigma of addiction and society’s perceptions of addiction,” she said. “I think that stigma prevents many people from getting involved and addressing the problem. After they learned that my brother was a heroin addict, some friends of my family were actually afraid to come to our house because they were apparently afraid he would attack them or something. I think seeing that kind of attitude not only prevents other people from getting involved, but also keeps addicts from reaching out and seeking the help they need.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com