McShin's White Marker Project

Do you know how many Virginians die each year due to addiction?

Photo of Cotter Leonard
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Eligibility: Are you employed by T-Mobile or related to an employee of T-Mobile?

  • No

Website or social media url(s) (optional):

Instagram: @mcshinfoundation Twitter: @McshinMcShin Facebook: Hashtag: #WhiteMarkerProject Personal Facebook:

Date Started

August 1, 2017

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)

1. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project? NOTE: All applications must include a 1 minute video that answers: “I am stepping up to make change because..."

My name is Cotter Leonard and I was born in Kovrov, Russia in 1996. In 1998, I was adopted and moved to The United States. I graduated from Glen Allen High School in Richmond, VA. I entered McShin's residential recovery program in August 2017 to start my recovery journey from Substance Use Disorders. Because of my drug use, my life became miserable and unmanageable, and I was at risk of losing everything. In November 2017, I started as an intern and am now the Marker Project Coordinator for the foundation. I'm passionate about this project because of my personal experience of addiction and recovery, as well as the friends I've lost to this disease. I could have been one of those lives lost. I want to raise awareness about the impact addiction has in Virginia and to give people hope that there IS a solution, and that solution is recovery!

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

The issue of Substance Use Disorders is pervasive and widespread throughout all of the US today, and Virginia is no exception. In 2014, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported that fatal drug overdoses were the most common cause of accidental death in the state of Virginia. Since this declaration, overdoses and deaths related to addiction have continued to rise throughout 2017 and into 2018. Virginia is losing over 3500 lives each year!

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

I started my own personal recovery from Substance Use Disorders through The McShin Foundation, an authentic peer-to-peer Recovery Community Organization located in Richmond, VA. Here, I learned how valuable peer support is in the recovery process and how necessary it is to be an advocate for those without a voice. I became part of the White Marker Project because I believe we can help solve the addiction crisis in Virginia, and the United States, through reducing the stigma of addiction and increasing our community's access to same day services. In the summer of 2017, when I was a participant in McShin's recovery program, I was one of the volunteers who helped cut, sand, paint, and assemble the over 3,500 markers. Each one of these represents a person who died as a result of drug or alcohol use. We created the memorial display to be mobile, and have moved it to over 15 locations around Richmond and the surrounding areas. We invite people who see the display to write the names of anyone they have lost due to addiction on a marker. Along with the set up, we include information about recovery resources that are available. This not only educates about the issue, but provides solutions.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of what happens when a person or group gets involved with your project.

Community members can get involved with the White Marker Project by hosting the display at their business, home, event, or place of worship. One woman, Lea, is a parent of a woman currently in McShin's recovery program. She asked to have the display sent up in her front yard, where it would be viewed by thousands of people driving past it on the main road every day. This gained media attention (one of many times this has happened with the project) see it here: "Every one of these markers represents one person," explained homeowner Amy Lea. "It's killing our kids, our sisters, it's killing too many people." "My daughter is 110 days clean today," Lea said. "Thank God for that. This is what has brought me into all of this."

5. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

The White Marker Project is unique because it is hand crafted by individuals in recovery who deal with the issues of Substance Use Disorders every single day. This creates an authenticity for the project that cannot be paralleled by an academic, government, or medical institution. It brings real names and people to match the statistics, creating a powerful impact that is hard to ignore. In addition, the project does not just perpetuate the negativity of addiction, it shows that there IS a solution. The people and organization behind the project are all in successful recovery, it is possible!

6. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

We have taken the project to over 15 locations, engaging nearly 1,000 people (not including those reached through media). The reviews we have received show the impact of the thought provoking and healing nature of the project: Katrina King: "Look at this amazing demonstration of love and respect for those who have lost their lives to substance abuse. They selflessly will add Kirstyn (my daughter) to one of the markers. Please, don't let these precious lives lost, be in vain." Trey Love: "Grateful to get back in town in time to participate in this #whitemarkerproject. So many lives have been lost. The crosses seem to go on forever. I added four names today." Pastor Dan Carlton: "It’s a powerful display. When you think about 3,500 deaths a year I think we all need to pause a little bit and say, ‘What is our role in helping this situation?’ These are real people’s lives.”

7. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

We have more local set up dates lined up for the coming months, but hope to expand to other areas in Virginia to reach new people. We would like to find sponsorships for the project to help fund the maintenance and transportation of it. Some locations have volunteered to host candlelight vigils along with the display. We would like to host additional events that can attract people to the display who may not otherwise be exposed to it. In addition, we would like other states to follow our lead. We would like to be able to fund and create projects using another state's data and donate the project to them so that this awareness and education can become a nationwide movement.

8. Future Support: What are the resources needed to make your vision a reality?

We are looking for funding, dedicated volunteers, and sponsorships to help us continue with this project. We are also hoping to connect with community leaders around Virginia to help get the project to other communities outside of the Richmond area. We would love to get it on display in Washington D.C.! Funding, mentoring, and a social media campaign for this project would be help take it to a more professional and impactful stage of development.

9. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations less than $100

10. Ripple Effect: Please share some ideas of how you could partner with other changemakers or involve other young people as leaders in making a difference.

We want to connect to others who are passionate about this issue throughout the state of Virginia and nationwide. These can be people in recovery, their loved ones, medical professionals, educators, government officials, religious communities or simply concerned citizens. We simply want to partner with other change makers who want to find a solution to this deadly problem and who are willing to make a statement while doing it!

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 [optional] Which of the following categories do you identify with?

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French) (6)

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 [optional] Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities?

  • Disability community
  • Low-income community
  • Other

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Recommended by others
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Join the conversation:

Photo of Hannah and Zoha

Great and much needed project.  We cheer you on.  Hannah and Zoha (HER)

Photo of Valentina Matzner

Hi Leonard, congrats for sharing your Inspiring story. Great project, Campaign and Messaging. still needs more info about what would you do after lifting awareness about addiction in the locations that you visit. For example I recommend that every time you go to a different location with the markers, you should associate with other local rehabilitation clinics to take action with the people that participate. Maybe thats a good idea of rippling effect !

Photo of Michelle LoNigro

Thank God someone wants to bring attention to addiction! there are way to many overdoses to the younger generation and suicide! I thought you did a brilliant job and can tell you are invested in this and saving the youth and i also thin this will prevent younger kids from even trying it to begin with! THANK YOU FROM SOMEONE IN RECOVERY 13 YEARS! Also Thank You to a mom whose son needs it and i know this will make an impact! You did awesome!!!