Sometimes it just takes seeing people actively making a difference, approaching what they do with a balance of realism and tenaciously optimism, to remind us we really can change the world, even if it’s in some small way.  The women of the documentary short Heroin(e) are saving lives and helping people change their circumstances every day.  Watching them is inspiring, and will move you to take action to help your part of the world heal, be better, find peace or create lasting change. 

The documentary short had its world premiere at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival, and is produced in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.  It began playing on Netflix on September 12th.  The film, which is directed by Peabody-award winning director and West Virginia native Elaine Sheldon, shows three women facing the opioid epidemic head-on in what is essentially the epicenter, Huntington, West Virginia, a town that has been called the “overdose capital of America.” Fire Chief Jan Radar, Drug Court Judge Patricia Keller, and Christian activist and realtor Necia Freeman, who started a “Brown Bag” ministry through her church, are tirelessly working to combat the crisis, each in their own way. The film doesn’t show any overdoses from start to finish.  It doesn’t follow the “scared straight” model, or mark the low ebb of an addict’s experience.  It shows what Radar, Keller, Freeman are doing to make a difference in a town with 10 times the national average of opioid overdoses.  They all believe and live by the idea that compassion and kindness, as well as the unflagging hope for longterm recovery in the population they serve.

The film, which clocks in at just under 40 minutes, follows these women in their daily experiences.  Jan Radar is the only woman in a fire department with nearly 100 firefighters, and has risen through the rank over her over 20 years of service to fire chief.  Judge Keller is the judge of the Cabell County drug court.  Freeman, who began her ministry feeding children who would otherwise go hungry in her county, began a ministry for sex workers, many of whom can point to addiction as a leading cause of their circumstances.  I sat down with director Sheldon, and the three women featured in the film, to ask them about their experience.

Leslie Combemale to Sheldon:  What drew you to this particular subject matter?

Sheldon: I’m from West Virginia, so that part of the country is part of my experience, as someone who left and returned. I had classmates that I’ve lost to this issue, so it’s a topic that’s been haunting me as a native to want to do something about it for a while, and it wasn’t until I met these women that I found a way into it that was more hopeful and allowed me to face my fears about what we were going to do about the future.  Meeting these women really inspired the film.

LC: How did you discover these women?  Did you have some idea what they were doing?

ES: I’d seen Jan in a piece or two about Huntington in the past.  She’s pretty public.  I met Jan and she introduced me to these other two women and then we spent about a week together filming.  About six months passed, and then it was just sitting on my hard drive while my husband and I started working on another documentary about four men going through recovery from heroine addiction.  While this was sitting on the hard drive, the Center for Investigative Reporting put a call out for the Glass Breaker Initiative, which is films about women making change, so we finally found a way to put that footage to good use and went back and shot more and shot 5 or so more days over the course of a year.

LC: So many docs come out, and there’s such a push for this movie. 

ES: Yes, Netflix is very powerful. I think Netflix is starting to get behind shorts in a big way. Which is great to see.  This is less of a short film and more of a featurette at 40 minutes. It’s half of a feature.  It has enough meat to start a conversation.  We created a companion guide to accompany it to make an hour-long experience where you can look at your own community and this issue. It’s an easy access point for people, being not too short and not too long. Netflix is putting a lot of power behind short docs, because they’ve had a lot of success getting to Academy Award nominations last year with Extremis and White Helmets so I think they’re seeing there’s a demand for these longer shorts.

LC: What is the main thing you learned from these women?

ES: Their stamina and resilience surprises me, and the fact that every person they touch they can have an impact on. That’s really inspiring to me. When you look at this problem from a larger view, it seems insurmountable, and unsolvable and never-ending.  Seeing them through their daily interactions with people making change, even through their ups and downs, their setbacks, seeing them persevere through that, that’s what we need to get through this.  That’s what surprised me the most, was I kept expecting for them to get disappointed to the point of giving up, but they have it within themselves to keep going.  They never give up. I admire so much that very day they never give up. 

LC, speaking to Jan Radar: One thing that will strike everyone who sees the film, as Elaine says, is your tenacity. One scene you are in a car driving by locations where multiple overdoses have taken place. How do you stay optimistic?

Jan Radar: Well, I’m the only woman in my fire department, and I have been since 1995.  So, I learned through a lot of heartache, is the only opinion that matters is my own.  That was a hard lesson for me to learn but I learned it.  You get nowhere when you wallow in negativity.  One of the issues that we’ve had in dealing with this epidemic is it’s all negative.  You go on an overdose and it’s bad for everyone from the first responders to the people who have overdosed to friends and family.  I’ve watched and observed and treated people badly.  It’s happened over the years and I figured we needed to try something different.  I thought “what if we treat them differently?”  You start learning people’s back stories and you have no idea how they have survived or where they get their resilience from, and it’s very humbling. It reminds me every day to be grateful for how I was raised and everything I have because it can disappear in a second.  We are all one step away from being embroiled in the middle of this epidemic.  It’s amazing how if you just show kindness and understand that your words are very powerful either in a negative way or a positive way. We are dealing with people who are very fragile, and who have no self esteem.  Our words can either lift them up or tear them down further.  I just can’t imagine treating them any other way than how I’d want my family members to be treated if they were in that situation.

I have always believed there is a way around every barrier.  It might take you over 20 years to find it, but you’ll find it.  I’ve got to believe the glass is half full because if I don’t I’ll destroy myself along with the folks I meet who are struggling.  I think it’s a personal choice to be positive in the response to this.

LC: You’ve been doing this for how long?

JR: 23 years. 

LC: In that time, new drugs have become available that have made a huge difference. 

JR: Yes.  Narcan.  It saves lives.  The whole goal is to save lives for long enough to get them into longterm recovery.  If it takes multiple doses, if it takes multiple times treating them with Narcan to reverse a possibly fatal overdose, then we need to do it because you can put a price on human life and people do recover.  They become productive, tax-paying citizens.  It’s good economics, but even more than that, it’s the morally and ethically right thing to do because i have no right to decide who lives and who dies.  Nobody does.  As a first responder I took an oath to save and protect life and property.  Nowhere in that does it say that I have the right to judge. As a society we judge.  I’m trying not to judge and trying, through modeling, to show other first responders that it’s ok not to judge and do the right thing.

LC: Have you found you’ve been able to shift some of those working with you?

JR: I think people are shifting.  Just like the gentleman in the documentary who questioned whether we have to give Narcan or not. He has a back story too, and it’s not pretty.  He has a right to his opinion, but I have documentation that he has actually administered Narcan, and he’s a very good firefighter.  I understand the frustration around this, because i’ve been there, too, but when push comes to shove and the bell goes off, my guys do their job.

LC, speaking to Patricia Keller: You seem to play against the type we all imagine as a judge in drug court.  Where do you come from personally that cause you to take that approach and how do you see yourself standing as example?

Patricia Keller: I was raised in a wonderful family.  I’m very fortunate to have had lot of positive encouragement and support and when I deal with folks in drug court, I almost think of them as family, as my kids, because I’m almost 60 now and they could well be my kids or grandkids.  You know I find that people respond to positives than they do to negatives.  That’s one of our principals with our drug court, we want to give four positives for every negative, and I don’t want to mean necessarily a positive like a financial reward like a gift card, but just affirmation like saying “You’ve had a really good day and I’m really proud of you for nine months clean.  You’ve made really good grades in college today.” Whatever that may be.  We really try to be positive.  These folks have reached the bottom and we’re trying to lift them up.  They don’t see it in themselves, so we have to try to help them see that.  That’s what’s so important as my role as the drug court judge.  Unfortunately, I also have to be firm sometimes, and they have to know, NO BULLSHIT! I have expectations, and I want you to rise to those expectations.  I’ll be honest with you, most of those that don’t make it in drug court are those that abscond.  Showing up is one of the most important things.  It’s going to take a while to change your head.  It takes a while for the lightbulb to go off.  It’s so exciting for our team when we have one of those AH-HA moments from one of our participants.  When the lightbulb goes off and they really understand what we’re doing and they’re making that change and making that progress.  We’re with them to help them get to that point, and we’re with them after that point to keep them focused. 

Drug courts really work.  We have a great success rate. Of our folks that graduate from drug court, our recidivism rate is about 8% after two years.  For drug offenders that just go to prison, the recidivism rate is more like 80%. 

It costs so much less. In West Virginia we spend about $7,000 a year on a drug court participant.  If we send that same person to prison, we spend $24,000 a year.  We don’t have the money just to lock them, for them to be unproductive.  I can spend less to change their lives and keep them in the economy, keep them with their families. It’s a no-brainer.  It’s one of those things that we are a criminal drug program, so people don’t get to our program unless they’ve done a felony so it’s not just a drug treatment program for people who have come in off the street.  We are trying to combat recidivism, and substance abuse, and we’ve found it to be very successful.

LC: It’s like “scared straight, with love”. 

PK: I love that!  One of our judges said they described me as “hammer and a hug”.  We hug a lot and we care a lot, but we have expectations and they know it.

LC: It seems like you are rebuilding the trust in themselves by your trust in them.

PK: I think that’s a very good description of the process.

LC, turning to Neica Freeman: Although I was raised that way, I am not Christian, but I certainly respect and love your brand of Christianity.

Neica Freeman: I truly believe, if you’re going to talk it, you’ve got to walk the walk.  I mean, they hold me accountable.  Whoever they is, be it the drug court participants, the prostitutes, if I believe I’m standing for Jesus, I have to be held accountable for my actions, both civic and otherwise.

LC: How did you start the ministry?

NC: I’ve always had this bold personality, and I went to this Christian school, from 8th to 12th grade. My favorite teacher Mr. Smith always called me a rebel with a cause. He said I went against the grain for a reason. I do have a cause.  When we were in school, back in the 80s, it was thought sinful to wear pants because the bible says not to wear men’s apparel.  I said to the principal and the other teachers,  “I don’t wear men’s apparel.  I’m a girl, and I’m shaped like a girl, and I don’t wear boy jeans, I don’t wear my brother’s jeans, I have my own.  The bible says not to wear their apparel, and I’m not wearing their jeans, I’m wearing my own.”  This didn’t go over very well, but I did stay at that school…Don’t take it out of context if you’re going to preach it.  The bible teacher there had a street ministry called Lincoln Ministry in Huntington and he’s the one who started the river ministry and he called me one day and he asked me if I wanted to go to the hood in 2010, and I said “absolutely, what are we doing?”  There was a Sunoco station that had to be torn down because of all the bad things happening around there, so we drove around in about a one mile radius of the station that was in a bad part of town and we’d see what we could do in that small bit of land because it was an attainable goal to focus on that and in that one mile radius there was an elementary school that happened to be where my daughter teaches, so we went to the principal and we asked what we could do to help them, and she said there were children that didn’t eat on the weekends, so we said we’d be happy to take care of that.  We started out with about 18 kids our first year, and we followed them all the way from pre-K to high school, and now we’re up to 74 as of last week and we provide them dinner on Friday, breakfast, lunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays.  We drop it off at their schools and they take the food home.  Some of it is because the parents just can’t afford to feed them and some of it is they just aren’t because they are selling their food stamps for drugs. You can’t hold children accountable for their parents’ behavior.  Through that, I got in that neighborhood, and then a woman who was a prostitute was killed there and it seemed like nobody cared, and I found out a few weeks later it turned out to be the mother of one of the kids we worked with who was being raised by grandparents.  I wanted to make a difference there, so I just started a prostitution ministry.  I don’t think deep, because I think sometimes when you think deep you calculate things or worry over things too much.

LC: I’d say you’d have to think rather deeply to be inspired to make a difference they way you are attempting to do.

NC: I try to live deep, but I don’t think deep.  If you sit around and analyze things and figure out how something is going to be done, maybe nothing would ever change.

LC: Oh, you mean you’re a woman of action!

NC: Yes.  I’ve never thought of it that way, I just say I don’t think deep.  But, yes, I just immediately start with a plan, let’s say plan A, and when that doesn’t work, I move on to Plan B without spending too much time thinking.  So yes, a woman of action. I knew where some prostitutes were. My friend who got me into working in the neighborhood told me to be careful, but I told him the lord was telling me to do it, so I was going to do it.  We ended up around the Sunoco and one day it was raining, and I was stuck not doing some of my ministry work and had brown bag lunches in my car.  There was an apartment complex I suspected had prostitutes in it, and I called him and asked if we could have the property manager take us door to door with brown bag lunches.  We had 12 bags and passed out 11. I just said, “Hi, I’m Necia and I’m here to offer you friendship and food.”  That’s our opening line.  When we were done, we had one bag left, and I gave it to a girl standing on the street. She took the food and the next day she called the landlord and asked who were were and if she could meet us.  We went to lunch with her and she spent the next 2 1/2 hours telling us about the life of a prostitute, and about addiction,  We give each girl we ever talk about fake names so we can use their stories as inspiration, and her fake name is Hope. I asked her what made her call.  We put a gospel track in each bag, and in hers it said, “There’s hope in this bag and I’m taking it.”.  It will be 6 years tomorrow that I’ve known her and now she’s a very dear friend. I trust her with my home, my children, and anything I have.  We’ve come a long way. She got married at my house.  She’s got a full time job now that she’s very happy with and that changes everything.  It changes everything when you go from a job like working at McDonalds to working somewhere at a factory or building things making more and getting raises. 

LC: And that must be motivating or inspiring to other women that they too can make changes, and have longterm recovery.

NC: For months and months she rode with us when we were brown bagging.  She would tell us who was prostituting and who wasn’t, who might be willing to go into recovery or get off the street. She was teaching me how to help.  Unintentionally she taught me how to love them, too, because I didn’t see her any differently. 

LC: Lastly, to all three of you, what would you say to those reading this interview who are inspired to make a difference?

Jan Radar: I’ll give the answer I often give when asked this, and it’s very simple. Be kind to each other. Talk to somebody, learn their backstory and don’t automatically write them off because they suffer from substance abuse. We have to get rid of the stigma because it could be any of us or one of our family members.  Words matter. You can make it better or you can make it worse by a simple hello. 

As to those who might want to donate, first responders need Narcan.  They can always use funding there.  First responders are struggling, there’s a lot of PTSD there because of the negativity they see.  Hug a firefighter.  Bake cookies for us. We love that. 

Patricia Keller: I think Jan is right.  We need to spread kindness and positive energy.  Listen to people’s story, find out who they are, and look them in the eye. There are so many little ways you can help, whatever your interest or passion might be.  We have so many kids that are lost in this process, when parents are dealing with addiction or have overdosed.  They need somebody to help them.  Play a game with them, help with school work. If there’s somebody in your neighborhood you see that’s lost like that, extend a hand.

Necia Freeman: And to follow up on what Judge Keller says, we need foster parents that want to do it for the soul of the child and not the paycheck.  If you’re a baseball coach, find a kid in a poorer neighborhood and ask to involve them, pick them up, drop them off, and feed them. You can tutor in school.  Schools have been consolidated so much, you’ve got the poor kids and rich kids going to the same school, so go to your neighborhood school and find who has a need. If you have a talent, it’s not to be kept to yourself.  If you can basketweave, show somebody how to basketweave.  Can you imagine an ADHD kid that learns how to basketweave and that’s how they calm themselves? There’s always some way you can help, whether it’s through your finances, your talents, or words, and always always through your actions.

You can see Heroin(e) now on Netflix.