When Marta Michelle Colon’s brother was recovering from a motorcycle accident as a teenager, doctors prescribed him opioids to treat the pain. What was meant to be a temporary solution during recovery became a chronic addiction that would cut his life tragically short. “We noticed that his attitude and behavior were changing,” Colon recalls. “That’s when we realized he had a substance use disorder.” Her brother’s death from an overdose of prescription pills was the catalyst that moved Colon, a human-capital strategist, to make a difference, so that no family would have to go through what hers did.
With that, Colon created Be Gutsy in 2018 as a national awareness campaign to educate young people about the dangers of misusing prescription opioids. During her research ahead of the launch, she was dismayed by the lack of available resources in Black and brown communities. “As a Latina, I understood that I needed to do something about it,” Colon tells Refinery29. “If I knew then what I learned in 2017 when preparing to launch Be Gutsy, I could’ve probably saved my brother’s life.”
Colon’s mission with Be Gutsy was to honor her brother while increasing awareness, especially among younger Latinx generations, that real danger is just a medicine cabinet or doctor’s visit away. She stresses the vulnerability of teens put on medication from sports-related injuries or dental surgeries — or even being introduced to pills at parties. She hopes to educate Latinx communities on how the “sharing is caring” philosophy when it comes to medicines, which is common within some cultures, is doing more harm than good. “We love to share everything, even our medication,” Colon says. It also doesn’t help that the instructions on prescription packaging are in English — for families that speak Spanish or Portuguese, they may not be able to read the warnings against sharing medication with others.
But that’s not all Colon aims to pass on: She also points to prescription misuse being a taboo topic within some Latinx communities. Colon wants to end the stigma and remove any judgement from these conversations. Through local partnerships, mentorship opportunities, and health-care programs, Be Gutsy looks at innovative ways to speak to adolescents about the opioid epidemic, using art, community talks, and even theatre productions to interest and empower them rather than lecture. “We’re making it easier for parents. We’re opening the conversation to something they might not feel practical about,” Colon says. “It’s a way to make the topic less negative and spark more conversation among the younger generation.” She also brings resources and information to health-care practices so that doctors can take the initiative in having these conversations.
This work couldn’t come at a more critical time, as studies have found dramatic increases in opioid misuse and overdose among Latinx populations. In 2018, 1.7 million Latinx people in the U.S. aged 12 and older were estimated to have engaged in opioid misuse in the past year — and the numbers continue to rise. The CDC reported in August that preventing opioid misuse among youth is a public health imperative as the U.S. confronts its decades-long opioid epidemic. Additionally, the American Medical Association reports that 40 states have seen an increase in opioid overdose deaths during COVID-19.
In just two years, Colon’s non-profit campaign has impacted more than 5,500 adolescents and young adults, and indirectly reached tens of thousands more through health fairs and medical programs. The pandemic didn’t halt her philanthropic work, as Be Gutsy now offers virtual talks and productions, along with socially-distant mural-painting programs. This crucial effort is exactly why Colon was honored as one of L’Oréal’s 2020 Women of Worth, an annual philanthropic program that highlights several women and the work they’re doing to serve their communities. She received a $10,000 donation for her campaign and was given a national platform to share her story to make an even bigger impact on others’ lives.
In light of the honor, Colon looks towards the future with more motivation than ever. “This validates that the work that we’re doing is really creating impact,” she says. “It’s a reminder that you don’t need large amounts of money or a hundred employees to change lives.”
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