When David Packhem asked Scarborough High School student Ashton Record to help him film a documentary about substance abuse and recovery that would be useful for teenagers, Record offered succinct advice.
“If you are going to do any documentary and hope to show it to kids, don’t try to scare them,” he told Packhem. And don’t judge. “No teenager wants someone to be judgmental and cruel.”
Now a senior, Record is part of the production team on “Voices of Hope: The Rugged Road to Recovery,” a 12-part documentary that focuses on young people who have struggled with substance abuse disorder and are in recovery and living healthy lifestyles. Produced by a collaborative regional organization known Students Empowered to End Dependency, the documentary began airing in May at 7 p.m. Saturdays on WGME in Portland and WABI in Bangor. It’s also being shown on WAGM in Presque Isle.
Packhem, chief operating officer at Pineland Farms Natural Meats in New Gloucester, decided to make the documentary after learning about the recovery community through his son, Chris, who became addicted to alcohol in 2018 and is in recovery – and in the documentary. “My wife and I came to better understand what happens with addiction, and we felt motivated to learn more,” he said.
“Voices of Hope” is the result of their learning experience. Packhem teamed up with filmmaker Reginald Groff of Groff Films to make the series. Packhem had seen Groff’s movie about Maine artist Zoo Cain, “Peace, Love and Zoo,” and liked the idea of a movie that told first-person stories of people who had been through recovery. Through his family’s experience with his son, Packhem became familiar with – and inspired by – the strength and candor of people in recovery.
“Their stories are amazing and they are not afraid to tell them,” Packhem said. “We often look for inspiration in our lives, and I have never been more inspired by a group of people than the people I met in recovery. One of the things I learned from them, recovery for them has become a daily discipline, like exercise or meditation. That daily practice leads to profound transformation.”
Packhem and Groff initially discussed a 90-minute movie, but the idea expanded into a documentary series as the interviews piled up. “The epiphany of our forward motion came out of filming the initial interviews and realizing how good they were and how diverse the topics were,” Groff said. “They were all not the same. When there are so many different topics and you want to give them attention the respect they deserve.”
Students Empowered to End Dependency includes students from Morse High School in Bath, Gorham, Scarborough, Windham and Yarmouth. The Scarborough Police Department is a project partner. Packhem said the goals of the organization are straightforward: Reduce the number of young people who use drugs or alcohol, teach the science of substance abuse disorder, reduce the stigma associated with it, and promote recovery services.
The first six 30-minute episodes will air through early June, then repeat, in order, for another six weeks. They will be followed by the final six episodes, said Packhem, who made an 18-week commitment of paid air time for the series. He has recruited sponsors to help pay costs.
Record is working on the documentary as a member of the production team, contributing his talents to story development and with general production duties. “To me, this project has never been about stopping people from doing drugs. That is not going to happen, and I am not sure it should happen,” he said. “It is about giving people information and making sure people understand what they are going through, because not everything people are going through is the same. We’re trying to get the information out to people so they can understand it through a factual lens and also so they know where to go for help.”
Among the voices in “Voices of Hope” is Justin Reid, who co-founded Providence Retreat, which includes the sober home Providence Place in Portland. He embraced Packhem’s idea of telling first-person stories directly from people in recovery, who can explain how and why they became addicted, what they did to stop using and how their lives have improved. “I reflect back to the prevention effort when I was younger,” Reid said in an interview. “My earliest memory was the ‘Just Say No’ campaign and the egg in the frying pan, and DARE and other programs all based on fear tactics and scaring kids.”
Those campaigns didn’t work, he said. “They never kept me away from substances,” said Reid, who graduated from Scarborough High in 2001. Much more effective are the voices of those who are willing to share their stories openly and honestly, he said.
Brittany Reichmann is one of them. She graduated from Windham High in 2007, and says no one who was close to her when she was young would have guessed she would become addicted to heroin. “I was a vibrant young girl. I went to school, I loved school,” she says in the first episode. “I loved sports, I loved hanging out with my friends.”
She began drinking at age 14, while maintaining straight A’s in school, playing soccer and participating in student council. In her junior year, she and her boyfriend pilfered her dad’s Vicodin, she says in the documentary. They each took one pill. “For me, it was this moment of – this is how I want to feel every moment for the rest of my life and whatever that looks like I am going to make sure I can do that.”
Eventually, she became addicted to heroin.
She talks about her journey because she knows her story helps others. “It has continuously been important to me as my life continues to become bigger and bigger and I feel farther and farther away from the chaos and hell of what my life was like, it’s so important for me to speak out, to share how beautiful my life is, because it was so dark for so long,” she said in an interview. “A huge part of my having any faith in taking steps toward recovery, I saw other people doing it and they spoke about it. I started to see it could be done.”
After each airs on TV, the episodes are available on the Voices of Hope website.