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Project honors DU student killed after carbon monoxide poisoning

Even though Lauren Johnson passed away a few years ago, her legacy lives on.

Johnson, a 23-year-old graduate student studying international relations at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her off-campus apartment Jan. 5, 2009.

In her memory, people close to her started the Lauren Project, an organization that provides grants to people ages 21–35 for international mission projects. The Project also aims to prevent similar tragedies by providing carbon monoxide detectors for Colorado homes.

“She was so damn opinionated and she didn’t care who knew that,” says her father, Don Johnson, who heads the Lauren Project. “She had such a desire to make the world a better place and that doesn’t die. Deep within her soul, she somehow knew the difference between right and wrong. Justice was something she didn’t think anyone should not have.”

The project awarded its first Lauren Moilien Johnson International Human Rights Award in October 2010 to Michelle Emry, who knew Lauren as a fellow undergraduate student at the University of Portland. Emry was awarded approximately $2,500 to assist with her expenses during a Thailand mission working with Shan refugees.

Johnson awarded another $1,200 grant this month to Tysha Medeiros, a Colorado State University student who is going to Panama to work on eco-tourism projects.

In general, Johnson says, the Lauren Project will distribute $5,000 in grant money per year with amounts varying on need and availability.

“Lauren had this great passion for international rights. We are sending these people out to do the things Lauren can’t do,” Johnson says.

“She’d be pretty pumped about the international human rights stuff — that was part of her every fiber,” Johnson says. “The thought that this would be going on in her name would mean a great deal to her.”

For Johnson, the project’s work on preventing carbon monoxide poisoning perhaps means much more.

“Ten to 15 people have told me that they bought a [carbon monoxide] detector after Lauren died and it went off and their family was saved,” he says.

Since Lauren’s death, the Lauren Project — teamed with other organizations — has given away about 1,300 carbon monoxide detectors.

During the first two weekends in March, some 115 volunteers for the project went door to door in Windsor, Colo., and offered free carbon monoxide detectors to residences that didn’t have one. They visited 3,000 homes and about 300 signed up to receive one. The Windsor-Severance Fire Department will install the detectors.

Funding has come from a variety of sources, including funds the Lauren Project collected from a silent auction last year. Johnson’s company, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, where he works as a financial associate, donated 1,000 detectors to the cause.

It’s easy to see the influence of Don Johnson, says Mike Davis, fire marshal at the Windsor-Severance Fire Department. Johnson was instrumental in the passing of a state law that requires carbon monoxide detectors and other safety measures in homes and apartments throughout Colorado.

“It takes great effort to change laws within any state. However [Johnson] has stayed the course in trying to change not only regulations, but most importantly life safety education as it relates to carbon monoxide poisoning,” Davis says. “It is commendable to see such passion and dedication toward life safety education even though I know that it hurts to not have such a great young leader — like Lauren was — still with us.”

Indeed, that pain is present for Johnson. “I would tell everyone: Don’t take the people you love for granted, and don’t assume they will be there tomorrow.”

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