How Parkland Mom Patricia Oliver Turned Her Grief Into Action

After her son Joaquin's death, she and her husband dedicated themselves to empowering youth and making change.

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(Image credit: Design By Morgan McMullen)

Patricia Oliver is the mother of Joaquin "Guac" Oliver, one of the 17 victims of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. A few months later, Patricia and her husband, Manuel, turned their grief into action and founded Change the Ref: a non-profit organization that empowers the next generation of leaders through art and non-violent creative expression. Here, Patricia describes what it's like to approach the two-year anniversary of her son's death, and how she hopes to continue inspiring people across the country to make a change.

When the anniversary starts approaching, you feel like something's wrong. That's the feeling that I have today. My loved ones, Joaquin's friends, we all feel like, wow, time is running. You feel more depressed, more down. At the same time, it feels like yesterday. When [the shooting] happened, I [made a promise to Joaquin in my heart] this would never be in vain. I didn't know what the answer was in that moment, but I knew we had to do something that makes a difference.

This is not something that you can sugar coat—it's a tragedy. My husband and I had to do something to make people understand. It's not political. This is social. This is emotional. I didn't lose a contract, I didn't lose a job. I lost my son. I lost my love. And that love doesn't come with money. Money doesn't bring Joaquin back. We need to feel safe in every single way, in every single place. As human beings, as members of society, and as members of this country, we deserve that. You can be here now and five minutes later you may not be.

That's why we created Change the Ref, a non-profit that uses art and emotion to inspire kids and parents to do something for a better future. Every time people see Manuel and me out there [creating murals that demand change and speaking with members of the community], they say, "Wow, what can I do for this?" When I see that connection, I want to explore it and go deeper because that's what society is looking for. They need that connection, they need to know that you're not looking for more from them, besides being together in a mission. So, we're giving people the opportunity to connect to an action that will create a better tomorrow.

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Patricia's husband, Manuel, paints an impromptu mural in Virginia, August 2018. His art has garnered worldwide attention and became the main way he expresses Change the Ref's mission: to empower youth and end gun violence.

(Image credit: The Washington Post / Getty Images)

We decided to travel around the country [creating art] because we keep seeing different kinds of situations that relate to gun violence. The gun plays the main role in every single activation we do because we believe that this is what we have to fight against. You have to be safe and you have to stay safe everywhere you go. You, me, everybody. We're not just looking at Coral Springs and Parkland. We are beyond that.

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Patricia and Manuel in front of The Underground in North Carolina, where they hosted a showing of "GUAC: My Son, My Hero.

(Image credit: Patricia Oliver)

Right now, we are also putting on a play starring my husband called "GUAC: My Son, My Hero" that began in Miami in September. It's about Joaquin, and I'm always in the audience. We try to show the way we were as a regular family [before this happened]. So, it's a dad telling the story of a family. We all know what happened to Joaquin, but you have to really know what we were like and the way Joaquin is. We love to say that he "still is." When the show is done, everybody comes up to us and says, "Oh my god, now I get Joaquin, I know Joaquin, I feel like Joaquin is a part of me, Joaquin is with me." At the same time, you're waking up those thoughts of, Okay, me as a parent, me as a person, me as a mom, me as a regular woman. What am I doing? That’s what the play is about. It's reconnecting emotions with a situation that's real. This is not a movie that you can watch and say, "Wow, that’s not true."

Joaquin is a very friendly kid. He's a great leader. He has a bunch of friends. He was always in love with school and every school activity. He was the one who guided his classmates. I met a few of them. After what happened, they came up to me and said, "Wow, you don't know how much Joaquin meant to me." And that is beautiful. He was lucky to always be surrounded by friends and family. He tried his best to always be with somebody. When I was working, he would call me and say, "Mommy when are you coming home?" and I'd say, "Well, I'm on my way." We used to cook together. He was always very lovely, a very sweet and caring kid. A super son.

Patricia Oliver and son

Top photo: Patricia and Joaquin on his third birthday; Bottom photo: Joaquin, 17, wearing his senior crown in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School courtyard six months before the shooting.

(Image credit: Patricia Oliver)

I am not an artist like Manuel, but I'm always at the events talking to people. They come up to me and tell me that they admire me, how they're motivated seeing us as parents going to all of these events. At the same time, we're trying to motivate them to do something for themselves because we're all on the same path. The feeling I get from them is what keeps me moving forward. I'm engaging more and more people—mostly kids and moms. That's amazing. At the end of the day, I'm accomplishing what I'm looking for.

This election year, I would like people to take their time and research who they are going to vote for and what they’re offering. You have to be responsible. This year is so important and we have to do our part. We have to work as a team. We have to be knowledgeable about what's going on with the candidates. You are giving them a job, and you have to understand that. You can't just say because I'm blue, I'm going to vote straight blue. That doesn't give you an answer. You need to hear the answer from the candidate. Take your time, and vote.

If you'd like to donate to Change the Ref to help Patricia and Manuel empower the next generation of leaders and eliminate gun violence, click here.

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Rachel Epstein

Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.