Turning Grief into Action: High School Students In Colorado Advocate for Change After Friend's Overdose

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In the quiet halls of Animas High School in Durango, Colorado, Zoe Ramsey and Niko Peterson are not just mourning the loss of their friend Gavinn McKinney—they are channeling their grief into advocacy and activism.

Gavinn McKinney passed away tragically at the age of 15 after unknowingly taking counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl. His death shook the tight-knit community of Animas High School to its core, prompting Zoe and Niko to take action. They embarked on a mission to ensure that Gavinn’s death was not in vain.

“From the very beginning, we wanted his death to mean something,” recalls Zoe Ramsey. “We wanted to prevent other students from experiencing what we went through.”

Their journey began with a simple yet powerful goal: to equip students with the tools to prevent overdose deaths on school grounds. Zoe and Niko educated themselves on harm reduction strategies, learning about fentanyl test strips and Narcan (naloxone), a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses.

“I didn't even know how little fentanyl it could take to kill somebody until after Gavinn’s death,” reflects Zoe. “That’s when we realized we needed to take action.”

Their first challenge was convincing school administrators to allow students to carry Narcan—a potentially life-saving measure. Despite initial resistance due to legal concerns and liability issues, Zoe and Niko persisted. They rallied support from their peers, organized protests, and lobbied the Durango school board relentlessly.

Their efforts paid off when Durango’s school board granted permission for students to carry and administer Narcan on campus. But Zoe and Niko didn’t stop there. They took their cause to the next level, collaborating with a Colorado state representative to draft legislation that would extend this right to students statewide.

In February, they found themselves testifying before skeptical legislators in the state capital. “There were moments when we wondered if we could convince them,” admits Niko. “But we were determined to make a difference.”

Their dedication bore fruit when, in April, Colorado’s lieutenant governor signed their bill into law—a victory that marked a profound moment of validation for Zoe and Niko.

As graduation approached, Zoe and Niko reflected on their journey and the bittersweet milestones they achieved without their friend Gavinn by their side. Despite the celebrations and accomplishments, the absence of their friend loomed large.

“We’re still grieving,” says Niko, his voice heavy with emotion. “Every achievement, every moment—it’s a reminder that Gavinn should be here with us.”

Zoe echoes his sentiment, her thoughts turning to the future. “I wonder what Gavinn would have done,” she muses. “What would he have accomplished? We’ll never know.”

At Animas High School’s graduation ceremony, an empty seat served as a poignant tribute to Gavinn McKinney—a reminder of a life lost too soon, but also of the enduring impact Zoe Ramsey and Niko Peterson have made in his memory.

As they look ahead, Zoe and Niko continue to advocate for greater awareness and support for harm reduction strategies. Their journey from grief to action stands as a testament to the power of youth activism and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy.

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