Westford remembers Zachary Lavoignet, a high school senior with ‘a heart of gold’

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WESTFORD — Zachary Lavoignet spent much of his life caring for others. While family friends battled cancer, he tended to their lawns. When his mom broke her leg, he took over her responsibilities as a professional animal caregiver.

Zachary shared his love through acts of service, and Westford benefited from his kindness. He passed away unexpectedly on May 23 at 18 years old.

Westford Academy seniors, teachers and administrators honored Zachary during their commencement June 3, wearing purple ribbons, holding a moment of silence and releasing a balloon in his name. His classmates wrote messages of remembrance on a memory board outside the gym and applauded at the reading of Zachary’s name during the ceremony.

Despite his challenges in school, Zachary worked hard to fulfill his graduation requirements, meeting daily with tutors, his mom, Elizabeth Lavoignet, said. She picked up his graduation certificate last week.

Together with Zachary’s older brother, Benjamin, the Lavoignets took trips to local beaches, enjoying the sunshine, swimming and kayaking alongside their dogs. Zachary had a “great smile and good heart,” his mom said, affectionately referring to him as “a dumbass with a heart of gold.”

“He had an infectious way about him that people don’t forget,” Elizabeth Lavoignet said.

The family of three moved from Indiana in 2005, returning to Elizabeth’s hometown. Zachary attended Westford Public Schools throughout his childhood and kept busy working at Nashoba Valley Tubing Park, Concord Country Club and a number of restaurants.

He also spent time at the Westford Skate Park, where his friend, Henry Snowdon, recalls Zachary, without hesitation, dropping in — or trying to skate into a halfpipe from the very top. From Snowdon’s account, the trick didn’t go so well.

“I can just remember his body hitting the ground, just like bouncing. Dude, it was like a basketball,” Snowdon said, laughing.

Snowdon, who graduated from WA this year, said Zachary cared deeply for his friends and “wouldn’t hurt a (expletive) fly.” He would always look out for others, never himself, Snowdon said.

Carson DiRuggiero, 18, another friend and classmate of Zachary’s, said “he was just fun to be around.”

“No matter if we sat at his house and did nothing or went out to the mall, hanging out or whatever, it was fun,” DiRuggiero said. “He was never in a bad mood and never was sad about really anything.”

But below the surface, Zachary struggled with depression, anxiety and drug use. He attended rehab programs and spent years looking for a therapist and psychiatrist that fit, Elizabeth Lavoignet said. Finding him the right resources was nearly impossible, she added, and “there’s a lot of doors that get slammed” in the process.

“The opioid crisis is huge,” Elizabeth Lavoignet said. “There doesn’t really seem to be any help, which is frustrating.”

The purple ribbons worn by graduating seniors and faculty commonly represent opioid-related deaths.

Despite his situation, Snowdon said Zach never used his mental health as an excuse to be cruel or distant, but stigmas painted an inaccurate depiction of “how good of a kid he actually was.” It’s a shame his true character wasn’t more well-known among the student body, he added.

“Not a lot of people knew what he was about,” Snowdon said. “And he got a bad rap from all the kids in Westford, but no one really took the time to talk to him.”

Dan Twomey, the dean of students at Westford Academy, offered the moment of silence during commencement. It’s not the first time the school has lost one of its own, he said, and it never gets any easier.

Zachary’s passing was especially difficult because many seniors were out of the regular school routine, with many having completed their Capstone experience and preparing for senior week, Twomey said. But as always, the WA community came together, Twomey said.

“Westford and the school have always been a welcoming environment,” Twomey said. “It’s the parents, the faculty, from the custodian to the AP [Chemistry] teacher, I think everybody understands that we’re in the business of educating students. And whatever is needed for those students at that particular time, whether it’s academics or anything else, just in general, people here generally step up to do what’s needed.”

Twomey remembers Zachary as “a people-person” and someone whose thoughtful personality shined through the halls of WA. Zachary kept graduation in his sightline, meeting all his requirements right before his passing, Twomey said.

“He was a kid who never gave up. Never gave up,” Twomey said. “He always kept trying.”

Elizabeth Lavoignet sees Zachary’s relationship with Twomey a little differently.

“Zachary gave poor Mr. Twomey hell,” Lavoignet said lightly.

To help cover Zachary’s funeral expenses, Snowdon’s mom, Dana, started a GoFundMe, raising nearly $20,000 before closing it earlier this week. The effort aimed to relieve the Lavoignets of some financial stress while they grieve, Dana Snowdon said, and offer a way for the community to help.

“It’s been really heartwarming, quite frankly, to see how people have really gathered together and want to do whatever they can,” Dana Snowdon said, “because it’s every parent’s worst nightmare to lose their child.”

Another fundraiser, through Westford Remembers, raised an additional $3,300 for funeral costs.

Zachary’s passing struck another personal chord for the Snowdons: Henry is also dealing with his own substance use disorders.

“Both our sons had very serious, dangerous issues,” Dana Snowdon said, “and it’s a scary world out there.”

Elizabeth Lavoignet will soon be moving into a new home in Berlin, just a short drive away from Westford and the lakes and natural scenery she and her boys cherished.

Without Zachary, life will go on in Westford, but his memory will live on.

“It’s weird because I feel like I go back and forth on grieving,” Henry Snowdon said, “but I also know that Zach wouldn’t want the situation to take a toll on the people he loved so much. So I go back and forth, trying to stay in strong form.”

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