It’s been almost a year and a half since 17-year-old Woodridge student Rachel DeMaio took her last breath in the arms of her mother, Cindy DeMaio, after overdosing on cocaine laced with carfentanil.

The pain of her death hasn’t subsided for DeMaio, especially as she prepares for Rachel’s alleged drug dealer to go on trial.

But Rachel’s Angels keep her going.

Part tribute and part educational program, Rachel’s Angels was formed by DeMaio and a group of Rachel’s closest friends to share her story with the goal of preventing other kids from ever picking up drugs.

“I decided right away that I wasn’t gonna let the legal issues control my life, because I have no control of that,” DeMaio said. “So I decided to take myself into an area that I can control, which is drug prevention.”

Rachel’s Angels has grown significantly since the group’s first presentation in December at St. Hilary School in Fairlawn. In just four months, the girls and DeMaio have been in nearly 10 schools across the county, reaching more than 2,000 students, and they have another five lined up in Akron Public Schools to finish up the school year.

Rachel’s story

Rachel had overdosed on heroin once, the month before her death in October 2016.

But when DeMaio found out that her daughter died from cocaine that was laced with carfentanil — a potent opiate used to sedate elephants — she was determined to warn others of the dangers lurking in illegal drug use beyond heroin.

“I decided right then, I’ve got to warn these kids,” DeMaio said. “I couldn’t even think of anything else. I just went into complete obsessive behavior. So did the girls.”

The group holds classroom and assembly presentations. Last week, Rachel’s Angels spoke to a group of nearly 350 kids in seventh and eighth grade at Hudson Middle School, where the assistant principal, Karen Weber, is the mother of one of Rachel’s Angels.

The presentations usually open up with a 15-minute video of students sharing their memories of Rachel and what it was like to learn she’d died. Dozens of photos of a smiling teen surrounded by friends flash between takes of those friends saying they’d never even known Rachel used drugs in the first place.

Then, each girl in the group steps up and talks about what they’ve learned since then: that anyone can become addicted to drugs; the signs of addiction; and that “one pill can kill.”

“You will be exposed to [drug addiction], you’ll have friends who are being exposed to it, but it’s up to you to make the difference in their lives — to make a difference in your own life,” Katie Bender, 19, told the crowd of middle schoolers.

DeMaio said she and the rest of the group learned most of what they know from the internet, and “from Rachel’s mistakes.”

The group has recently connected with Akron Say No to Dope and its founder, Tugg Massa, who was at Hudson with the girls telling his story of addiction that started when he was 10.

Their over-arching message is one of fear — experiment with any drug and it could kill you. But by coupling that warning with personal stories of pain, it seems to make the lesson more real for the kids, whose eyes were wide and attentive as they listened.

“It just shows how easily things could change in a split second,” said Hudson eighth-grader Josephine Lawler.

Hanging back

As the girls put on their presentation, DeMaio sat and watched from the front row.

She speaks at many of the small classroom presentations, sometimes with Fred DiMarco, a father from North Olmsted who also lost his 18-year-old son to a drug overdose.

But speaking in front of a large group is still too difficult for DeMaio, who continues to grieve.

She is constantly reminded of the pain as she deals with the upcoming trial of Jamarr King, the man accused of selling Rachel the cocaine the night she died.

His trial was supposed to be this month, but it was delayed until Aug. 13 while the defense gathers more information. In some ways, Rachel’s Angels is a comfort for DeMaio.

“To watch the video is OK for me because it makes me feel like I’m spending the day with my daughter, and to feel the love from all these students really inspires me,” DeMaio said.

But it’s just as much about educating kids about drugs at a young age, especially as deadly drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil continue showing up on the streets.

When three 20-year-old women overdosed on a drug suspected to be laced with something stronger during a birthday party earlier this month, DeMaio immediately thought of Rachel.

In the days that followed, DeMaio stood outside Giant Eagle and passed out Rachel’s Angels bracelets to teens, especially those who looked like they were headed to a party. She said one group of kids found her on Facebook and thanked her.

It’s those moments that let her know what she’s doing is having an impact. As DeMaio grows Rachel’s Angels — her ultimate dream is to open a treatment center for teens called Rachel’s Wings — she doesn’t just want people to know about Rachel’s story. She also wants them to learn from it.

“I think the video tells enough about [Rachel’s] personal life. I’d like to focus the rest of the time on educating,” DeMaio said. “That’s where I’m at. Like, let’s just forget about Rachel. Let’s talk about you.”

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.