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Originally published Sunday, August 19, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Penny LeGate: 'The wound shuts up and then breaks open again'

The death of Marah Williams has spurred her mother, Penny LeGate, to help struggling teens.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Nicole's calendar

Christmas in August: It may be a little early to be thinking about Christmas spirits, but certainly not the kind you pour into a glass. Urban Enoteca is hosting a Signature Cocktail Contest featuring some of Seattle's top mixologists, plus food and dance music, all to benefit the Providence O'Christmas Trees fundraiser. 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, 4130 First Ave. S., Seattle. $25 by reservation only (206-938-1998 or www2.providence.org/kingcounty/giving.

Cascades of thanks: Immanuel Lutheran Church — the first church in Seattle to host a homeless shelter — is celebrating 100 years of community and giving thanks to the Cascade neighborhood with an outdoor barbecue in the park. The Sunday, Aug. 26, event runs from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and will include kids' activities and neighborhood projects like an electronic-photo scavenger hunt, and music by the Mountlake Terrace High School Jazz Band (www.immanuelseattle.org).

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My heart goes out to Penny. I have lived this story but we were more fortunate in that... MORE
Penny, my heart goes out to you snd your family. I have three daughters, age 15, 12, an... MORE
My sincere condolences to Ms. LeGate for losing her daughter at only 19. I hope you... MORE

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Penny LeGate walked into the Bay Café and, just by removing her sunglasses, showed me everything.

The years of struggle, the worry, the pain and the still-fresh loss of her daughter, Marah Williams, who died of an apparent heroin overdose on June 12. She was 19.

"I have no choice but to survive," the former KIRO-TV reporter told me.

The next day, we would learn of another loss in the Seattle television-news circle: Kathi Goertzen, who suffered from recurring brain tumors for years, died Monday from complications related to pneumonia.

The things people endure. The smiles they muster for the camera, when behind the scenes, they carry more than we can imagine.

LeGate had been doing it for years, and continued to do so after leaving KIRO-TV in 2010 and working as a freelance video producer, host and public speaker all over the region.

Which explains why, despite her grief, she is able to articulate what happened, and what she'd like to do beyond this loss.

"I still can't believe it," LeGate said of her daughter's death. "The wound shuts up and then breaks open again. What keeps me going is that she isn't struggling and agonizing anymore."

In her memory, LeGate has established The Marah Project (www.teensinpublicservice.org/get-involved/the-marah-project) which will provide paid internships for students from Northgate Middle College, an alternative high school that is part of the Seattle Public Schools' safety-net program. Marah graduated from the school last year.

The Marah Project will be run by Teens in Public Service, a nonprofit that will identify, train and supervise 10 teens to work at businesses that volunteer to mentor the kids. LeGate hopes to kick off the program later this year.

"They need the work," she said of the students, "and to learn structure, how to be there on time. People like Marah are not accepted. They are not the mainstream kids."

But that doesn't mean they don't have gifts.

Marah was intuitive, her mother told me.

"You could not get anything past that girl," she said. "She knew things before they happened. She was scary that way. Definitely an evolved spirit."

And troubled.

It started when Marah hit puberty and suddenly had problems keeping friends after years of being part of groups: dancing, softball.

She was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and depression, and then, at 12, the substance abuse began.

Marah experimented with drinking, pot, pills and cocaine. LeGate and her then-husband, Michael Williams, fought to parent her. Their other daughter, Molly, now 23 and teaching high-school in Hawaii, tried to help.

There is no detox program specifically for adolescents in Washington state. And state law allows kids as young as 14 to walk away from detox facilities, if they choose.

So when Marah was 16, her parents sent her to a treatment facility in Tuscon. She came home after three months and "was better for a while," LeGate said.

Then she started using OxyContin, then heroin.

Her addictions turned out to be more powerful than everything she was.

She used to plead with her mother, asking "Why am I like this? Why?"

LeGate never knew what to tell her. But she believes there was a genetic component at work.

"We've got this whole thing wrong about how we view people with addictions," LeGate said.

There are disturbing numbers showing that Marah was not alone.

The number of young adults in treatment programs for heroin and other opiates was up 74 percent from 1999 to 2010, according to the Alcohol & Drug Institute at the University of Washington.

And the rate of current illicit drug use among young adults aged 18 to 25 increased from 19.6 percent in 2008 to 21.5 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

LeGate doesn't need numbers to tell her any of that. Not when she was the one to find Marah that last day.

"I am glad it was me," she said.

The official toxicology report isn't complete, but LeGate suspects Marah got a hold of a bad batch of heroin.

Marah's memorial service was held at the Seattle Repertory Theater. It was standing-room-only.

"This little slip of a girl had so much impact," LeGate said. "I want to keep that going."

Nicole& Co. appears every Sunday in NW Arts&Life. Reach Nicole at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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About Nicole & Co.

Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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