How an Anchorage woman is spreading awareness of FASD by painting rocks

A woman with a polka-dot shirt holding a rock.
Karen Lomack holds up a painted rock for for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Month on Thursday, Sep. 1, 2022. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Karen Lomack walked around Midtown Anchorage on a recent Thursday afternoon with a stack of rocks painted to look like red shoes. She tucked one next to a bunch of gravel, its bright crimson shine standing out among a sea of gray and white. 

Lomack painted many of the rocks herself, some taking hours. Her favorite of the bunch is about the size of a discus, painted to look like a red sneaker. 

“I cannot bring it back with me,” Lomack said as she set the rock down. “I need to hide it. It’s too beautiful. I don’t want to keep it for myself. I want to share it with others.”

The rocks have a deeper meaning. On the flip side of them, Lomack has written several hashtags: #RedShoesRock and #FASDAlaska. Plus, #StoneSoupGroup, Lomack’s employer that specializes in working with special needs children.

Lomack’s rock project is part of a unique national effort, called Red Shoes Rock, to bring awareness and reduce stigma over fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASD, an umbrella term for a list of symptoms that can result from prenatal alcohol exposure. The idea being a bright red shoe is pretty hard to miss.

For Lomack, the project hits close to home.

A woman in a polka-dot shirt hides a rock under a bush.
Karen Lomack hides a painted rock at the Midtown Mall parking lot. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Lomack is Yup’ik, from the Yukon-Kuskokwim community of Akiachak. She said she grew up with FASD, but didn’t know for years. When her aunt finally told her that her mother had consumed alcohol when she was pregnant, she said it explained a lot.

“I had meltdowns, whether they were in the home, in the school, in the community,” she said. “It happened wherever. And I did not have the skills to calm myself down.”

Lomack said prenatal exposure to alcohol can lead to a host of impacts to children. 

“Executive function,” she listed. “Attention, focus, sensory, adaptive living and communication, social skills, visual perception, fine motor skills.”

While there isn’t a lot of solid research into how widespread FASD is, the state of Alaska estimates that, conservatively, up to 50 in every 1,000 U.S. children has some form of it. And it’s estimated Alaska’s rate is a little higher because the state has a higher rate of alcohol misuse. 

Lomack said growing up, she didn’t receive a lot of information about how serious prenatal alcohol exposure could be for children. She noted that some medical providers previously believed that a glass of wine was fine for pregnant mothers. 

Painted rocks on a ledge
An assortment of rocks painted as red shoes by Lomack to help draw attention to FASD. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Lomack’s personal connection to FASD became more prominent when two of her children ended up showing signs of the condition, too. She said explaining to them that they were exposed to alcohol while in the womb was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. 

“Telling them that, ‘I did consume alcohol when I was pregnant with you,’ and explaining that I did not do it on purpose — I did not know that I was pregnant,” Lomack said. “And it came with a lot of anger. It came with a lot of resentment. It came with guilt.”

Lomack has been sober for just shy of 12 years, and said she’s been able to work with her children, not only to address how FASD impacts them, but also to confront the negative stigma associated with it. 

“One of them is able to say, ‘I’m impacted by FASD’ and not have any embarrassment, no shame,” Lomack said. “And it’s a really good feeling.”

Now, Lomack works with community members to spread awareness of FASD. For those not immediately impacted, it means describing how alcohol can affect pregnant people and those trying to become pregnant. For others, it means accepting that FASD will always be a part of who they are. 

“It’s a forever thing. It never goes away,” Lomack said. “But with the right support in place for the individuals who they care for, or if they are the individual who is impacted, they can be successful.”

Part of that outreach means getting those Red Rock Shoes out into the public for community members to find. This is the second year Lomack has done the project. She said there are dedicated Red Rock pages on social media where people can post about where they’re placing rocks, showing how widespread the outreach is. 

“I’m hoping that they do not keep the rock for themselves,” Lomack said. “What I hope that they do is they re-hide the rock. And take a picture of the rock that they’re re-hiding and they post it in their community’s rock group page.”

September is the national FASD Awareness Month. Lomack said Stone Soup Group is hosting a community rock painting party this Saturday, Sept. 17, at the Fairview Rec Center in Anchorage from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. The group is also hosting an FASD Support and Discussion group on Sept. 29.

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.