Growing up, my family lived in a small town in Indiana. From the outside, it would appear that not much happens in a small-town like ours – little did we know what was to come.
We call ourselves the “Morgan 5” - and we will always be a family of five, even though one of us is no longer here on Earth. My brother Zach struggled with drug addiction, went through rehabilitation, relapsed after a period of sobriety, continued to battle his addiction, and ultimately lost his life in a drug-related shooting in 2009.
My brother, Zachary Morgan, is more than just one of the 129 people who are losing their lives to this epidemic.
Zach was the oldest of three siblings. I was lucky to grow up with two older brothers. When my middle brother, Josh, was sitting on me or chasing me, Zach was the one who rescued me. He always seemed to be saving or hugging just about everyone. In our town, it was not uncommon for families to leave their doors open so the neighborhood children could play together.
Zach took his “cool older brother” persona into high school too. He was a member of the National Honor Society, active in youth group, a community volunteer, and a lifeguard. He swam and played football, basketball and golf. Zach was someone people felt they could talk to because he was understanding and compassionate. He always had a big grin, an open mind and the best hugs.
In high school, Zach became friends with a group of kids who he thought would relieve him of the “good kid” labels. At 15, this group of friends introduced Zach to marijuana. Despite our open household and the ease of conversation within our family, Zach began to use marijuana more frequently, which led him to become closed off and secretive. After Zach was arrested for drug possession at the age of 16, my parents decided to place him into rehabilitation at 17 and moved him to a different high school. This transition was difficult for the entire family. At home, Zach found himself in a new family dynamic and at school, he had new friends, new classes, and new dress codes.
What often goes unnoticed in addiction treatment is the rest of the family. Many families fall apart when a child is struggling with drug abuse and treatment. Being the sibling of a person addicted to drugs is no cake-walk.
I’m sure many other families can attest to this, but Zach’s drug use and recovery became the focus of our household. As his addiction hung over our family, we decided it would be best to move to Arizona for a fresh start. Around the time of the big move, Zach began to spend time with the same group of friends that had gotten him into trouble in the first place. He started using drugs again, and his drug use followed us to Arizona.
Before Zach left rehab, he and my parents signed a contract stating that if he were to use drugs while living in our home, he would need to move. After a combination of several police visits, calls from the high school and strange visitors - my brother left our home and dropped out of high school before graduation. He moved to Flagstaff, which is well-known in Arizona for its drug scene. On December 23, 2009, Zach was shot and killed by a fellow heroin user. My family was shattered and in the midst of our grief, we had to go through the grueling process of a trial against my brother’s murderer. Zach was only 21 years old.
We often hear about families falling apart after losing a loved one, and while my family has changed, we remain together because that it is what Zach would want. When I turned 15, I decided to get involved with the Miss America Organization as a way to be proactive and share my family’s story.
Seven years later, I continue to share Zach’s story with others in the hope of encouraging families to create an open household where they have consistent discussions about drug use and conversations with their children about how to lead a healthy life. I speak to teens and young adults about the dangers of drug use, as well as the impact that drug use has on your loved ones. I have worked through the Miss Arizona Organization as a local titleholder (Miss Grand Canyon) to both share my family’s experience and to work on strategies, encouragement, and resources for young people in Arizona. It is my hope that as a representative of Miss America, I can lead help people understand that there is so much more than the personal impact when it comes to drug use: it is your entire circle of family and friends. Addiction can harm you no matter what kind of town you live in or what high school you attend.
As Miss Grand Canyon and as just “Hannah,” I have shared my story and the cold hard facts about drug addiction in my work with drugfreeazkids.org, SADD, Southwest Behavioral and Health Services, and www.notMYkid.org. My work with the Miss America Organization helps spread my platform of “Reach for Your Dreams, Not Drugs,” with the focus of inspiring others to choose a path that allows for their dreams to come true and lead healthy lifestyles in order to get there.