Cuyahoga Falls -- The family and friends of a 17-year-old girl who died from an overdose last fall are launching an effort to spread the word about the dangers of drug use.
Rachel Anne DeMaio died Oct. 28, 2016 after, her family said, she used a drug containing Carfentanil. Rachel attended Hoban High School and served as the captain of the Freshman volleyball team, then transferred to Woodridge High School, where she continued playing volleyball.
According to a letter from Rachel's parents Cindy and Russ that is being distributed in the community, Carfentanil "is a synthetic opioid that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which itself is 50 times more potent than heroin."
"Rachel was not an addict," the Demaios' letter stated. "Rachel did not hang out with the wrong crowd. Her friends did not supply her with drugs, it was through social media that she bought her final dose. She was a teenager who made a wrong choice. Her choice cost her her life. It cost us, her parents, the ability to ever feel complete again."
Cindy and Russ DeMaio, along with about 40 other family members and friends gathered for a dinner and remembrance event at Village Gardens Restaurant on Feb. 27. The program was also designed to kick off an initiative to combat drug use and overdoses, and culminated with a candlelight vigil and balloon release.
Before releasing the balloons, Cindy DeMaio told the group of family and friends to think about "how special Rachel was to you, how you're going to honor her memory and continue to be strong, true to yourself, spread the word and [be] drug-free and help others always we love you, Rachel."
Balloons were released and floated into the night sky as attendees said "We love you Rachel." Each balloon carried a message that Cindy DeMaio said is being unofficially called "Rachel's Message." The message is a poem written by Anna Zoldsey and the bottom of the page contains a message saying "Now Rachel lives within the hearts of the people she loved the most. Her breath whispers on angel's wings. We are Rachel's Angels, reaching out to each of you"
Karen Gaffney, the assistant principal at Hudson Middle School, and a friend of the DeMaios, helped organize the event on Feb. 27. Gaffney's daughter was one of Rachel's many friends. Gaffney told the gathering that she spent a lot of time talking with the DeMaios in the four months since their daughter's death. While noting she is "amazed" at the couple's strength, Gaffney told the audience: "There's another side. There are days that they can't get out of bed. There are days that they just sit and can't move forward."
Gaffney said a group called Rachel's Angels is being formed. She said any of the teenagers joining the group must commit to being drug-free and alcohol-free.
"You have to walk the walk," said Gaffney, who urged the teens to help get the message out about the dangers of drug use. " You guys have to help us figure out, how do we get people not to experiment [with drugs]? That's where we have to do it. We're going to need your help telling us what you think we will work best."
"We're going to try to stay focused on prevention and also immediate resources for helping families," said Gaffney.
She encouraged the teens to think about celebrations and events that they will be participating in, and how they will handle situations that occur there. She asked them to think about their dreams and plans for their lives.
"That is all part of God's plan for you," said Gaffney. "I really believe that God has a plan for all of us to live a very long and healthy life. [God] does not plan for these tragedies like disease or drugs That is life getting in the way of God's plan."
Gaffney shared her memories of Rachel and encouraged the teens to share their recollections, an exercise that led to plenty of smiles and laughter.
"That girl made me laugh," said Gaffney. "She drove me crazy sometimes, but she made me laugh."
Gaffney also shared the opening of a column recently written by Record Publishing Co. Capital Bureau Chief Marc Kovac in which Kovac shared Ohio Sen. Frank LaRose's message that a tiny amount of fentanyl can kill a person. The illustration made by LaRose was that 32 salt grains was enough fentanyl to claim a life.
There are 15 of Rachel's friends from Woodridge, Walsh Jesuit, Hoban, Revere and St. Vincent-St. Mary high schools who are serving as Rachel's Angels. They are committing to being drug-free and alcohol-free, and to not be in the presence of drugs, according to Cindy.
They are, Cindy said, "spreading the word: drug-free, true to themselves and strong."
Cindy said Rachel's Angels will help put together information that will distributed to other schools and will also be available to help their peers "if they're in trouble."
Cindy said she has a large network of support due to the large number of friends her daughter made through attending St. Hilary School, playing volleyball year-round and other activities.
"She never turned away a friend," said Cindy. "They would always call her if they needed help, if they needed something. She would always tell them how to fix it."
Cindy said she is working with Woodridge Local School District Superintendent Walter Davis to put out Rachel's message to juveniles and teenagers through bracelets, T-shirts and letters to students and parents that will be circulated throughout the schools.
"We're trying to get awareness out there where we can help people in my situation or in other situations," said Cindy to the Falls News-Press.
Davis said he has met with Cindy to discuss ways that she "can make a difference in the lives of students here (and in other local schools) to try to stop other youngsters from doing drugs."
Davis said the district works with city safety forces to "bring speakers and provide programs for our students to address these issues on an ongoing basis." The issues are also addressed in the district's health curriculum and guidance counselors, school psychologists and other staff discuss decision-making with students.
The superintendent said Cindy is providing resources that will be "used in conjunction with our ongoing programming," and she will be part of "larger planning work being coordinated to bring area leaders together to learn more about the circumstances surrounding Rachel's death. We want those in authority positions to understand the struggles Cindy and her family had when trying to find help for Rachel prior to her death."
Davis said letters to parents and students, as well as bracelets and pencils with positive messages will be used "to enhance the work already underway."
"It's a small army that's coming together in her honor," added Cindy. "It's just kind of happening and growing on its own. It's amazing. Beautiful. It's going to be a movement. I can feel it."