On the days after the accidental heroin overdose of her son, Luke, days when she didn't believe she could go on, Colleen Ronnei of Chanhassen turned to a quote from a "tiny book."
The book, "Brave Enough," is a collection of quotes by Cheryl Strayed, the Minnesota-raised University of Minnesota graduate and author of the bestseller "Wild." Strayed herself turned to heroin after the death of her mother to cancer at age 45. The book included this reassurance, which Ronnei calls a "lifeline:"
"You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by offering comfort to others who can't go on. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage."
But Ronnei didn't just go on. She went in — into classrooms with a team of perhaps the most effective truth-tellers when you really need to get young people's attention about the opioid epidemic:
This September marks the sixth year that Ronnei will send young people in recovery — as well as loved ones affected by substance use disorder — into classrooms across the state with the nonprofit she founded after Luke's death in 2016.
Teams from Change the Outcome (changetheoutcome.org) offer judgment-free, refreshingly candid and actionable information on current drug trends — particularly the alarming rise in fentanyl use — as well as how to recognize an overdose and use life-saving naloxone/Narcan.
The program is free, funded through donations and grants.
Since 2017, the nonprofit has reached 50,000 students, educators, parents and community members, Ronnei said, in school districts including Bemidji and Bloomington, St. Cloud and Stillwater, Wadena County and Wayzata.
"I felt the schools had a moral and ethical obligation to educate students and parents about the opioid epidemic, and almost all were clueless or turning a blind eye," said Ronnei, 60.
"We're not there to say, 'Don't do this.' We're there to say, 'These are the facts and this is what you should know, and should you find yourself in trouble, here are resources and here's how to ask for help.' "
1 in 3 young adults
As Ronnei noted, young people have been hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis.
A 2020 Pediatrics study reported that prescription opioids are one of the most used and misused controlled substances among U.S. adolescents and young adults. Approximately one in every three people 18 to 25 and one in every five adolescents 12 to 17 reported past-year medical use or misuse of prescription opioids.
In addition, synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, have been linked to more than 56,000 overdose deaths in 2020, according to the CDC.
"A high school kid could be at a party where another kid has a mitt-full of pills," Ronnei said. "And he or she gets the pill laced with 95% fentanyl pressed into something that looks like Xanax or Adderall. It's a scary time.
"For anyone who thinks this won't happen to them, they need to wake up," she said. "Educate yourselves. Talk to your kids. They're going to make their choices no matter what you tell them. Kids don't need permission from anybody."
Tucker Robinson would count himself in that group. Robinson, 27, grew up in a small Vermont town that was hit "incredibly hard" by the opioid epidemic. Drinking was also rooted in the culture, he said.
He took his first drink at 13, then started smoking weed; at 20, a friend gave him heroin which was, he said, "the be-all, end-all for me." He flunked out of college, hustling and stealing to support his habit.
At 22, sleeping in a closet in a house with 14 other people after four unsuccessful treatment stays, he overdosed. One of his roommates saved his life with Narcan.
"I got really lucky," he said. "After that, I started to think about my parents, what would they say about me? That got to me. I don't care if I go, but I don't want them to go through that."
In 2017, he went to Hazelden for treatment — "the last stop on my rehab tour." Three months ago, he graduated from Augsburg University in communications. He works to stay sober and has joined Ronnei full-time as program coordinator, speaking in middle schools and high schools about substance use disorder.
"Colleen has such a good grasp on what it means to try to get ahead of the epidemic that's been going on in our country for so long," he said. "We can at least do our part to fight back against that and offer these services to young people. I've lost so many friends to this disease."
Just saying no, he said, doesn't work. "You have to be more empathetic and understanding of where young people are at."
Addicted within five months
Luke Ronnei was in high school when he was first prescribed opioids, his mother said. That eventually led to heroin and "within five months, he was fully addicted." He died Jan. 7, 2016, at 20.
A memorial fund was established after he died, and Ronnei wondered, "What are we going to do with this?"
She approached Luke's high school, "but they never took me up on it. I was angry but I was also vocal at a time when most people weren't talking about this. But secrets don't help us at all."
She was immensely grateful for one early adapter: Sheryl Raithel has been a health educator at Kennedy High School in Bloomington for more than two decades. This is the sixth year Raithel will bring Change the Outcome into her classroom.
"Almost always, I have somebody or numerous students linger [after the presentation]," Raithel said. "The panel participants have become more diverse and many times, a student will head to a particular person. It adds to our educational outreach."
Ronnei finds joy in noting that only one of her 30 young panelists with Change the Outcome has relapsed, and that Luke's older brother, Nick, "has built a beautiful life for himself."
Grief therapy was a godsend early on, she said, but after 10 months, "I had gotten all I could from it. My rebuilding comes from doing something productive to keep others from going through what Luke and our family went through."
When she feels vulnerable, she knows that she can turn to Strayed's quotes to buoy her.
"That place of true healing is a fierce place. It's a giant place. It's a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really hard to get there, but you can do it."
"You do heal," Ronnei said. "In those early days, you don't think you ever will be able to get out of bed again. That absence takes up so much space that it's a little bit mind-boggling. It never goes away, but you get better at not wallowing.
"I'm not so caught up in the what-ifs now."
Cheryl Strayed will be speaking at a sold-out Change the Outcome event Oct. 6 at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.