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Youth opioid summit heads to Rio Rancho

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She wanted to talk about her sister Raven and how unfair it was that she was only 15 when she died.

How unfair it was that those responsible for selling her little sister the fentanyl-laced Xanax that killed her July 31 have never been held accountable.

How much it hurt.

“I am in anguish as my sister’s death certificate says ‘accidental overdose,'” Serina Serna wrote in an email. “She did not know she was taking fentanyl. She would have never taken it knowingly. She was a teenager doing what teenagers do – experimenting – and it cost her life.”

Serna talked about how she had the Snapchat names and messages of the people who sold her sister the deadly synthetic opiate but that police had done nothing with the information, despite promises to follow up.

“My sister deserves better,” she wrote. “My family deserves better. My friends deserve better. All of us deserve better.”

And yes, all of us deserve a world where little sisters don’t die, where youths don’t experiment, don’t plunge that inaugural needle of heroin into the vein, don’t spiral down into that deadly swill of addiction.

Hailey Hesch is one of the guest speakers at the National Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness. Hesch says she started becoming involved in hard drugs, including heroin, when she was 12 and has been to more funerals of her friends than birthdays. She is now in recovery at Serenity Mesa. (SOURCE: National Youth Summit On Opioid Awareness)

So we educate ourselves and our children. We caution, cajole and nag them not to take that single step into the dark world of drugs, which accounted for more than 70,000 deaths annually across the nation, most from opioids, more deaths than are caused by either car crashes or gun violence.

We tell them that first taste could mean their last breath. We ask them to think about our anguish if we lost them to addiction, to imagine our faces, our tears. We ask them to think about all the people they know – friends, celebrities, brothers, sisters – who have died far too young from drug overdoses.

Sometimes it works. Too many times it doesn’t. And if we are lucky, we get a chance to try again. And again. And again.

Raven’s family did not get that chance.

Next month, families get some major support in that endeavor. The National Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness rolls into Rio Rancho’s Santa Ana Star Center on March 6 and is expected to draw thousands of middle and high school students from across the state for a morning of hard talk, helpful information, entertainment and the faces and tears of those left behind when opioids took a loved one away.

“This is a big deal,” said Jennifer Weiss-Burke, who founded the Serenity Mesa Youth Recovery Center after her son Cameron, 18, died of a heroin overdose in 2011. “It’s a national presentation specifically aimed at the age group that has been especially affected by the opioid crisis.”

Rio Rancho is among the five cities chosen for the summit, the first one taking place last October in Salt Lake City. Other cities have included Louisville, Ky, and Charleston, W.Va., with Philadelphia scheduled sometime after the Rio Rancho summit.

The cities were selected because they are in states hit hard by the opioid crisis. Although New Mexico has seen a decline in recent years, it still ranks as the 15th highest in the nation for opioid overdose deaths, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The summit is sponsored by the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation and DEA 360 Strategy in conjunction with community partners Walmart and the Gavin Foundation.

(And no, Marky Mark will not be attending the summit, but his brother Jim Wahlberg, executive director of the foundation and a recovering addict himself, will.)

The summit is not open to the public. Registration must be done through schools, which are encouraged to register their students if they have not already done so as this is a first come, first served event.

“The organization has reached out to schools across the state, including those on pueblos and reservations,” Weiss-Burke said. “At other cities, they’ve had up to 7,000 students show up.”

Expected speakers and performers at the half-day summit include Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and “The Voice” winner Chevel Shepherd. Weiss-Burke will also speak briefly as will one of the youths who is now in recovery at Serenity Mesa.

Weiss-Burke’s bigger role is to recruit family members who have lost loved ones to opioid overdose as part of the final moment of the summit.

At the end of a short movie, titled “If Only” and produced by Jim Wahlberg, the lights come up and the stage is filled with those family members, who stand silently holding photos of their lost loved ones.

“It’s a powerful moment,” Weiss-Burke said. “It brings everything home to see all those people, all those faces. It makes it real.”

So far, she’s gotten commitments from about 10 people but is hoping for more. It’s a way for families to honor those they loved who stepped into that dark world of drugs and never came back.

I told Serna about the summit and about the chance to honor Raven and stand with those of us who share her anguish.

I’ll think she’ll be there.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.