Surfer Alex Gray knows the harm addiction can cause.

Fifteen years ago, before Gray was a pro surfer chasing big waves across the globe, his world was shattered when his older brother died from a drug overdose.

Now, the South Bay surfer is on a mission: to educate the next generation on how bad decisions can turn tragic — even fatal. Gray, 33, teamed up with South Bay Families Connected to speak at 11 South Bay schools about drug use and vaping.

It was just after his brother Chris’ death when Gray first spoke at a high school about the dangers of addiction, in the same Palos Verdes Peninsula area where he and his brother went to school growing up.

Back in those days — before the now out-of-control opioid epidemic — much was still unknown about the dangers of prescription drug use as a gateway to heavier drugs such as heroin, which ultimately took Chris’ life.

“I wanted to explain to people, to break the stigma of who a drug user is,” Gray said. “When my brother’s life was taken, it was shocking in so many ways.”

He wondered: How do we bring more awareness and information to prevent such tragedies?

“I felt compelled to explain to people the severity of a drug and where it can take your life — and ultimately end your life,” said Gray.

Following his brother’s death, Gray went on to have a successful pro surfing career, earning spots into some of the world’s most prestigious big-wave contests. Despite being away from home as he searched for surf, he always found time to come back to be an occasional speaker.

It was a video from one of those talks that caught the attention of Laura McIntire, founder and creative director of South Bay Families Connected, a youth wellness resource launched in 2015 as a pilot project at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. It has since expanded to 90 partner schools in the South Bay.

The intention of the nonprofit is to share resources in areas such as early social-emotional wellness, anxiety, managing social media, substance abuse, and other struggles youths face. With recent surveys from areas schools – including elementary and middle schools – about the rise in vaping, McIntire was looking for an influencer who could connect with students about the dangerous trend.

“He was the vision I hoped for … just connecting with the kids,” she said. “The kids are totally engaged. He was just an amazing communicator.”

So the two partnered for what’s being called the “SBFC Vaping Prevention Tour with Alex Gray,” with an expected 13,000 students being reached with the message by mid-November.

‘It’s an overwhelming issue, it’s completely infiltrated the campuses,” McIntire said. “It’s become a health crisis and concern.”

After Gray’s first talk, at Manhattan Beach Middle School on Oct. 7, there was a huge positive response. One administrator reported an estimated 40 e-mails from parents and students thanking them for the discussion, which prompted an open dialogue at home about vaping and substance abuse, McIntire said.

“His talks sparked those conversations in the home,” she said. “That just gives me chills, that’s what it’s all about for me.”

Gray relates the vaping epidemic to those early days after his brother’s death, when the dangers of prescription drugs were relatively unknown.

“I know the severity of something that is being produced and marketed as harmless,” Gray said.

“I’m sitting here scratching my head — we’re doing this all over again?” he said in reference to vaping. “With big tobacco, we’ve already gone through my grandfather’s generation of people dying from lung cancer.”

As of Oct. 15, there have been nearly 1,500 lung injury cases associated with the use of e-cigarettes, or vaping, in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirty-three deaths have been confirmed in 24 states.

Vaping is being marketed with flavors such as cotton candy and strawberry — something people need to stand up against, he said.

“It’s almost like a smack in the face to ourselves. At what point are we going to stand up to help these kids? If it’s not us telling them, it’s going to snowball. Are we going to end up with a massive killing devise that as of right now has no laws and regulations?”

“At some point, all they will care about is getting that next hit or getting their next high,” said Gray, who last year created a sibling grief group that meets at the beach. “You run down the road of losing your family, your relationship, your job, your home, your life — all due to a choice at a young age as a kid.”

Gray spoke at Torrance High School on Friday, Oct. 18, where Dean of Students Michelle Kaloper-Bersin said the 1,000 or so ninth- and 10-graders in attendance were quiet and attentive during his talk.

“We’re trying to get that message to kids, but at this age, they don’t think this will happen to them,” she said about the dangers of vaping. “When we speak to them, they take it as lecturing. When it’s him, it’s just him talking. He was able to just connect with them and just talk. He’s really good.”

There was a moment when Gray choked up talking about his brother’s death, stopping as the students gazed at him. Then, they started clapping, to show him support.

“It was powerful,” she said. “I was proud of my kids.”

Gray will be back at Torrance High School later this week to address 11th and 12th graders, and will visit other area schools in weeks to come.

South Bay Families Connected launched an Opioid Awareness project in 2017. And McIntire, originally from Laguna Beach, is hoping to expand a Families Connected program into Orange County.

Gray said he also hopes to take his message – which includes following your passion to mental health and relationships — to youth around the country.

“My ultimate goal, I would love to get all over the U.S. and go internationally with it,” he said. “Where better to start than where it means the most — at home.”

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