‘She kept us safe’: Requiem for Margo Lawson, guardian angel to Miami opioid users

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena

Margo Lawson died clean. She was 48 years old.

After living on the streets of Overtown for more than a decade, she had beaten impossible odds; stopped using drugs, moved from a shelter into an apartment with another sober friend and kept a job. She was weeks away from her dream coming true: being hired by UM Jackson to work as a peer advocate at the first legal needle exchange in the American South. Then, she suffered a massive heart attack and was taken off life support on June 19.

“For a lot of people all they need is a head start. It’s that first step,” Lawson said in an interview with the Miami Herald early last month. She proudly showed off the tattoo on her right hand. It read in big black letters: “An IDEA saved my life.”

IDEA is short for the Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act, signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, which paved the way for the IDEA Exchange to open its doors in Overtown.

A close-up of the newly painted mobile clinic for the IDEA Exchange, done as a tribute to Margo Lawson, who suffered a fatal heart attack after being sober for two years. Lawson used her own experience to help others in recovery.

Currently, it provides 1,400 of the estimated 15,000 IV drug users in Miami-Dade County with clean needles and outpatient care daily.

Four years ago, Margo Lawson was one of them. It was also where she came for help to quit 21 months ago.

It’s only fitting that this was the place — not a church, synagogue, mosque, or even a 12-step recovery room — where loved ones congregated on Saturday to pay their respects. No clergy attended. There was no invocation prayer or incense burning from a gold thurible. But to those present it was a holy display of faith; if she had overcome, they could, too.

“I knew Margo from when we were out there. Anywhere she went, people would camp all around her. She kept us safe,” a former drug user who goes by Flaca said in tears.

Many of those interviewed by the Miami Herald asked to be identified solely by their first name or nickname to preserve their anonymity. “I was like, bro if she got clean, I can get clean,” Flaca told the crowd. Everyone chuckled.

Three of her friends popped two blue canopy tents in the middle of the parking lot. They handed congregants red plastic cups with their choice of Pepsi or water for a toast. Instead of an altar, people stood in front of the exchange’s colorful medical van, which had been painted with graffiti, including a female angel in homage to Lawson.

“She’ll always be a hero to me. She made it clean to the other side,” said Lawson’s roommate, Ernesto, who also painted the van. Under her initials, he added the names of all their friends who perished from drug-involved overdoses.

Meanwhile, the exchange was still open for business. In the background, participants made their way to the window to pick up a new batch of syringes.

Journey toward recovery

By Lawson’s own account, she gave birth to a daughter when she was 14 and began using drugs at age 26. It started with cocaine. As a young woman she worked as a stripper in Ohio, eventually transitioning to the adult film industry. When cash dried up, she moved down to South Florida. Eventually, her using progressed to crack, falling into a pattern of homelessness and prostitution.

Dr. Hansel Tookes reads the names of friends who have passed away before. This was before a July 11, 2020, memorial service for Margo Lawson at the IDEA Exchange in Overtown. Lawson’s friend, Ernesto, painted the mobile clinic as a tribute to his fallen friend, who suffered a fatal heart attack after being sober for two years.

She had a previous sober stint, in which she became a certified phlebotomist — someone who collects blood for donation or testing — and went to college to complete a psychology degree. But after a dentist used routine pain killers during a procedure, she fell back in, hard.

“I remember her coming here every single day. When she finally said she was ready, I was shocked.” Carlos Padron, operations manager at the exchange, said. “But I also knew we were going to do everything in our power to help.”

Award-winning photographer Lee Jeffries immortalized Lawson, then known as Margo Stevens.

In 2017, award-winning photographer Lee Jeffries photographed Lawson, then known as Margo Stevens. She had various last names and aliases, including Margo Kenyon. It wasn’t until she got clean this time around that she was able to get a Florida ID with her legal last name.

“Margo literally would give you the shirt off her back. I know that’s the thing people say about most people when they die,” her best friend, Arrow, said. “But Margo did it, even if she only had one shirt.”

Arrow and Ernesto, friends of the late Margo Lawson, show their set of tattoos, which they got to commemorate the beginning of their sobriety. They say they were helped to achieve sobriety by the IDEA Exchange in Overtown, Florida. Saturday, July 11, 2020.
Lawson, Ernesto, and Arrow got matching tattoos to celebrate their sobriety. Courtesy: Lawson

According to Arrow, Lawson’s legacy will always be saving peoples’ lives, saying she had brought at least 200 people back from the brink with Narcan, the nasal spray used to treat opioid overdoses. The pair were squatting neighbors on the street and their friendship only grew stronger in recovery. Arrow is also slated to start working as peer advocate at the exchange in the coming weeks.

“I was very proud of her, She kept it short and to the point and was working to build a relationship with her family,” her sponsor, Anna, told the Herald.

Lawson’s family did not return the Herald’s multiple requests for comment. She is survived by her two children.

Lost souls

Not all of the attendees were in recovery, but all were welcome. Some still live on the street. The crowd wasn’t in Sunday-best clothing, but came with the best they had.

For some, this was more than just about Lawson’s death, it was about all the lives taken by the opioid epidemic, which claimed over 3,000 lives in Florida last year alone, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“This is the first time that they are going to get to do this,” said Emelina Martinez, an outreach coordinator for the IDEA Exchange. “The most they get to do is put a teddy bear and cardboard sign on the place they slept outside.”

Costaki, who is originally from Boston, was among them. He knew many names on the van but was especially fond of Lawson.

“The real tragedy is that we’ll never know how far Margo could have gone,” he said. His favorite memory was going with her to speak at panels. “She never forgot about us.”

Unlike others recovering from substance abuse disorders who sometimes leave the people, places, and things that remind them of their using behind, Lawson made it her new life’s mission.

“They are my family,” Lawson told the Herald during her last interview on June 12. “And like all families you have some good family members and some not-so-good family members.”

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