- By Tom Archdeacon columnist
She sat in the deserted indoor rowing room at the back of the Frericks Center a few evenings ago and talked quietly about folks who are trying to stay afloat in far rougher waters than she or her University of Dayton teammates ever have faced.
“They let us into a vulnerable place in their lives and in their hearts,” said Taylor Alexander as her eyes began to tear up.
“They allowed us to come in with camera equipment and ask nosy questions, so I wanted to be very sensitive and not exploit their suffering for the sake of a good story.
“They have lives and dreams and ambitions and families. And when you learn what it means to live with addiction and, moreover, when someone tries to stop, you realize what they are facing.
“You know it’s something you never want to experience, but you have an empathy and a real appreciation for them that you might not have had before.”
That’s the kind of talk you get from the 22-year-old senior who not only is a veteran rower for the Flyers but has shown herself to be a budding movie maker, too.
Alexander is the co-producer of a documentary — “Epicenter: Dayton’s Opioid Crisis” — that just won a student Emmy from the four-state Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
The 16-minute film, which offers a sobering, but caring, examination of the numbing national drug crisis as seen through the lens of Dayton, is the work of student filmmakers in Greg Kennedy’s media production class at UD. They spoke to recovering addicts, their families, treatment specialists and law enforcement to get their story.
The student Emmy — known as a Pillar — will be presented next Saturday at the NATAS chapter’s annual Emmy Awards Gala in Lawrenceburg, Ind.
While Alexander said she and some of the 20 other people who worked on the film will be there to accept the honor, she admitted she already had gotten her “validation” at the gathering that mattered most to her.
When the Academy informed her via late-night email that the UD filmmakers had won the long-form nonfiction category — topping all other entrants from colleges across Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia — some of the first people she informed where those in Families of Addicts, the grassroots recovery support group that meets every Wednesday evening at the Life Enrichment Center on Findlay Street.
People there had shared their most personal and painful accounts with Alexander and her fellow filmmakers, and when they were shown the documentary, they applauded it for truly capturing the story of addiction, helping rid the stigma attached to it and offering a communal call to action.
“Their recognition was all I needed,” Alexander said. “That told us that we had done a good job.”
Alexander — who co-produced the film with Matt Hilliard and Alex Moulvi — was the only junior who teamed with 12 seniors in Kennedy’s class and six other students to make the film.
“She’s a student who definitely cares a lot, not just about the experience you get, but the end product,” Kennedy said. “She saw the impact the documentary had on the community and the viewers, and how it can matter beyond just the story and the moment and go on to make a meaningful difference in lives.”
And this was one of the reasons Alexander came to UD from Gaithersburg, Md., some 20 miles north of Washington, D.C.
Her mom and dad both had been Army paratroopers in the 101st Airborne Division. After the service, her dad worked for the government in security, she said, and his assignments took her to various stops around the world, including Morocco, Nicaragua to several places in Europe. She spent a lot of time in D.C., as well.
“Growing up in D.C., everything is fast-paced and can be complicated,” she said. “I thought I needed to slow down and realize what was really important in life, and UD seemed like the perfect place for that.”
Well, half of that has happened.
She’s found the important stuff.
“But it’s pretty ironic,” she laughed. “I came here to slow down and did just the opposite.”
Not only was she part of UD rowing’s two Varsity 8 boats, the Varsity 4 and a couple of JV boats last season, but she’s about to serve her third year as a Resident Adviser in the dorms. When the school year begins, she’ll oversee 36 students at the new Adele Center on Lowes Street.
She’s been a 4.0 student with a double major in communications and international relations, is beginning work at the Flyer TV station on campus and is heavily involved in a couple of UD projects that affect social consciousness and change.
Besides her continued efforts stemming from the opioid documentary, she just spent two weeks on the US- Mexico border — in the sister cities of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico — as part of UD’’s Moral Courage Project.
It’s a human rights storytelling group — last year the topic was the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. — that is now documenting experiences on the border to present a truer narrative on immigration and make the most contentious issues more human.
She said they were there for the “Hugs Not Walls” event that was organized by the advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights.
For three minutes, guards allowed people separated by the border — many of them split from their loved ones for years — to meet family members in the bed of the Rio Grande River.
Alexander and other students interviewed people who took part, and they talked to immigration lawyers about some of the challenges of legal immigration.
“It can take 15 years to get here, and people escaping violence don’t have 15 years,’’ Alexander said. “When you are met with such brokenness and such despair, it makes it almost impossible to meet that with more hatred.
“Regardless of your political views on the subject, the reality is people are suffering.”
This coming semester, the UD group will compile its work into an exhibit, a podcast and a website.
As for her continued wonderment of the world, Alexander attributes that to her parents and the opportunities that came with her dad’s travels.
“I’m really, really grateful to them,” she said. “They always instilled the value that the world is much bigger than we know.”
Pulling from life experiences
Alexander has had life experiences a lot of other UD students have not.
“I’m from a biracial and bilingual family,” she said.
Her dad, Bruce, is African-American and French. Lisa, her mom, is white and came from Pittsburgh.
“When I came to college here, where most of the students grew up in an all-white environment, that was an experience far from my lived experience,” she said.
There have also been definitive moments involving her two sisters.
Her older sister, Codi, was 16 (Taylor was 13) when she was hit and killed by a motorist as she walked her bike though a crosswalk on her way home from her job as a lifeguard.
“She was my big sister and my best friend,” Alexander said. “She was just a perfect human being. And that’s one of my biggest motivations now. She never got the chance to graduate from anything, so I’m doing as much as I can. And if I can be anything like her, I will have done something special.”
She has two brothers — Chase played football at Salisbury State last year and Brandon is a high school wrestler — and four years ago her parents adopted a baby, Katharine, who was opioid addicted at birth. Today, she’s a loved and vibrant little girl whom Alexander describes as “ a little bit of sunshine.”
Coming to UD with all these life experiences, she felt she would be able to immerse herself in both the campus and the city.
“I had always felt lost in D.C., but Dayton was the size that I thought I could get to know,” she said. “It’s a whole different world than the campus and I’ve tried to experience it.”
So instead of doing homework at the UD library, she might go to the Dayton Metro Library downtown. Rather than coffee on campus. she’ll go to a place like Ghostlight Coffee on Wayne Avenue.
Although she had played field hockey in high school, she knew nothing about rowing and ended up part of the UD team as a fluke.
“I was trying to make friends freshman year, and there was this girl on our floor who had rowed in high school,” she said. “She asked me to come to an information session about the team, and I said, ‘Oh sure.’ I didn’t think there was any commitment. I was just hoping to make a new friend.
“But when I got there, it turned into a ‘learn to row’ session.”
She did well on the indoor rowing machine, and the coach asked her to try out for the team. And that girl from the floor is Hannah Butler, now the senior captain of the UD team, Alexander’s roommate and one of her closest friends.
“Rowing has become the cornerstone of my life,” Alexander said. “It’s what I build everything around. Because I have to get up early to train, it means I have to get to bed at a certain point. And I have to eat right to keep my body healthy.
“Rowing gives me a lot of discipline and structure and a fantastic community of support. And my teammates all get it. They are just as dedicated and excelling in the areas of their life on campus as I am with mine. “
Making the most of it
Her involvement in both the opioid documentary and now the Moral Courage Project are further opening her eyes to the world around her.
She said the documentary group’s focus changed early in the process.
“At first we wanted to show the scope of the problem and say ‘Look how big it is. So many people have died from it, so many have been affected,’ she said. “But soon it felt like we were just going for shock value.
“Then we started actually meeting the people and going to recovery sessions and talking to families and hearing about ways the community comes together to mitigate this crisis. We became more empathetic.
“And we saw addiction as a disease, not a choice.”
She learned people continue taking the drug, not to get high, but to keep from getting dope sick — the chemical malfunction that comes when the brain and body reel because they don’t have the increased levels of dopamine they now need.
“If you think of the worst flu you ever had — imagine that at times 200 or 300,” they were told by Billy Brokschmidt, a recovering addict who’s a leader of the Family of Addicts support group and speaks passionately throughout the area on the subject.
Alexander said they found that most people with an opioid addiction started with a prescription to medication. Brokschmidt told them how, when he was in the Air Force, he had a series of surgeries on his kidneys, was prescribed Percocet and was put on leave for 18 months.
“After that I ended up hopelessly addicted,” he said.
The group filmed a heartbreaking conversation with Mark McKiernan, a local man whose son has had a long battle with opioid addiction.
With a voice often catching on emotion, he told of trying “to help and love and support” his son, but always fearing one day getting the call that his son had died from drugs.
One of the stars of the film is Tiffany Clark, a recovering addict and an artist of note whose boyfriend introduced her to heroin and then died of an overdose.
She’s been clean for six years now and spoke candidly and, at times, quite emotionally about her drug use and recovery, part of which is manifested in the colorful murals she’s painted around the city.
When the documentary premiered to a packed house in the Sears Recital Hall on the UD campus, it received a standing ovation as final credits rolled.
Communication Department chair Joe Valenzano praised the way the students not only presented the problem in Dayton but provided hope by showing people in the community who are making strides to address the issue.
“I am terribly proud of these students,” Valenzano told reporters. “They are an example of the best UD has to offer.”
And that, too, is why Alexander came to UD.
“It was a big sacrifice for my parents to send me here,” she said. “I want to show them how appreciative I am of that. I want to do everything I can while I’m here. They gave me this opportunity, and now I want to make sure I make the most of it.”