LAND O'LAKES — Sunlake High School senior Marc Romera recently lost one of his best friends at another school to suicide. After the tragedy, Romera was haunted by the question, "What could I have done?"
Sitting in the Sunlake cafeteria, Romera said he looked around a room divided by socially ostracizing cliques. He decided then to make his senior project an effort to bring students together and help teens in trouble.
He would call it "Live Your Life."
"My friend was always an outsider and when she tried to talk to people about how she was feeling, no one listened," said Romera, 18. "When I saw all those people sitting in the lunchroom, I realized there are so many people I don't know who may be struggling. I wanted to do something to help stop hate and spread a message of love."
Each school year, Pasco County seniors are required to complete a senior project. Students choose their subject at the beginning of the year; then follow deadlines set by the county. The project includes a research paper on a chosen topic, a final product based on the topic and a presentation before judges at the end of the school year. At Sunlake, senior projects are managed by the English department.
Romera chose to write his research paper on To Write Love on Her Arms, an Orlando-based nonprofit dedicated to helping people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and suicide. The organization provides counseling and assistance to people looking for hope. T-shirts are sold to spread the message and fund the cause.
To Write Love on Her Arms helped inspire the final product for Romera's senior project.
"My final product is answering the question, how does one start a movement for change," Romera said. "I came up with the name Live Your Life because it is a statement against suicide and also a statement that you need to live your life, not just for yourself, but for others."
When Romera started talking to peers about Live Your Life, he got mixed responses. Some wanted to help. Others thought it sounded cheesy. Soon, students started coming to him for advice, and friends volunteered to help him spread the Live Your Life message.
With the help of assistant principal Erin Galletta, Romera reached out to peers and became a mentor. Galletta is working to merge Live Your Life with Sunlake's standard approach to problems such as bullying and teen suicide.
"We are working with Marc to try and tie his movement in with how we regularly handle situations on campus," Galletta said. "As Live Your Life takes off, we hope to make the message a part of our normal operation practices."
Live Your Life is already taking off.
Romera started a Facebook campaign asking students to wear a Live Your Life T-shirt to school Sept. 17. Students from throughout Florida responded, and 236 teens agreed to wear the shirts.
Romera made 236 shirts with the help of friends senior Kevin Tripp and junior Allie Hill. They used spray paint, markers and tape to create a graffiti-style shirt. About 35 students at Sunlake wore them. The rest were distributed to students at other Pasco schools.
"After school one day Marc told me what his idea was, and I said, 'Yeah, I'll help,' " Allie Hill said. "I agree with him that people are too mean to each other and they just don't care enough. It's important to try and change that."
Romera has designed an official logo for Live Your Life and is working to raise money to have official T-shirts printed to sell. He plans to charge $20 and give the profits to people in need. He will give some proceeds to Stop the Nakedness, a charity to help clothe people living below the poverty line.
Romera's goal is to make Live Your Life his life's work. He wants to travel the country speaking to youths. He already has a speaking engagement scheduled at Pine View Middle School, where he plans to spread the message of loving your peers regardless of how they look or what they are about.
"It's too late to help my friend, but if this movement can help others it's my responsibility to keep trying," he said.