Joaquin Oliver was one of 17 students murdered last Feb. 14, and his parents have since dedicated themselves to preventing gun violence
Exactly one year ago, Patricia Oliver’s home was filled with crying family members and friends: Her 17-year-old son Joaquin was one of 17 fatal victims of the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
For Patricia and her husband, artist Manuel Oliver, the pain of losing Joaquin, a popular senior with a larger-than-life personality, has not abated in the year since. In that time, the couple has dedicated themselves to gun violence prevention advocacy, hoping to prevent other parents from feeling their pain.
While their community marks the solemn one-year anniversary back in Florida, the Olivers traveled to New York where they unveiled a four-story high mural created by Manuel and Colossal Media. For one month, the mural will be displayed on the side of a building at 29th Street and 6th Avenue as a reminder of the lives lost on Feb. 14, 2018.
At the unveiling of the mural, Manuel Oliver told PEOPLE that his focus is on his activism and not his pain.
“It doesn’t matter how much it hurts because we have a [gun] problem,” he says.
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Patricia recalls those hours in her home after Joaquin’s death as the birth of her activism.
“I told them, ‘We are allowed to cry. We are allowed to be sad. We are allowed to scream. But we have to do something about it,’” she says. “Whatever we do, we have to be outside because nothing is going to happen if we’re in here, in our room, crying and grabbing a pillow.”
Following Joaquin’s death, Patricia and Manuel created Change the Ref, an organization that encourages youth leadership and uses art to inspire people to work to end the gun violence epidemic in the United States.
Patricia has traveled across the country and met with countless mothers who have lost their children and loved ones to gun violence. She says it’s a club she never wanted to be a part of, but she has no choice.
“Women, we have the power. We have the strength,” she says. “We have to use that power to empower others. We have to be responsible and committed to save lives and live in a safe country.”