Mary Sue Connolly’s life changed forever when her nephew died from an opioid overdose.
She had to do something.
Grieving wasn’t enough, especially as she discovered how many West Virginia families face the same heartbreaking news.
The more she talked with them, it became clear entire communities are losing lives as the state’s opioid epidemic continues to grow.
And not just one or two people, here or there.
Her nephew, Paul, was a WVU student when he died last Thanksgiving, and had everything going for him. Not unlike others, he kept his struggles mostly hidden and didn’t like to share the pain of addiction
“I believed him to be invincible. I never ever, ever knew how bad this problem was. And I never believed it could happen to us, or that the lightening would strike us,” she said.
Several of his friends have since overdosed, and that was part of the eye-opening experiences that led Connolly to probe the state’s heroin epidemic.
But growing areas like Morgantown and Martinsburg aren’t the only places where addicts are dying.
Rural communities might slip under the radar, but heroin is an equal opportunity killer.
She learned that lesson after a chance online meeting with a young woman who’d already been incarcerated for dealing drugs in Grant County.
But the more she learned, the more questions remained.
Soon she was traveling from her Brooklyn home to various parts of the Eastern Panhandle, including Petersburg and Moorefield, on an increasingly regular basis.
She knew what she had to do.
An Irish filmmaker, editor and producer who has worked for CNN and CBS Television Distribution, Connolly lost no time putting her skills to good use locally.
Her documentary “Petersburg” gives a voice to town addicts and family members who lost loved ones to overdoses.
It also questions who the “true drug dealers are” since many become addicted when giant pharmaceutical companies over distributed opioids, state doctors over prescribed them and pill mills fueled the epidemic.
“It wasn’t even a conscious decision to do this in the beginning. But the more I learned about the heroin and opioid problem, I just knew I had to start recording what people were sharing,” she said.
Their stories are true, but heartbreaking.
“Some of these girls who used to be dealers have seen more than we can ever imagine.”
Take Petersburg resident Bre Lashae, who grew up in a home torn apart by drugs, admits to having been one of the town’s biggest dealer when she was just 19 years old.
After serving five years in a federal prison where she received training to become a drug and alcohol treatment specialist, Lashae has a new outlook. She has a cameo role in the film, and serves as its producer.
Lashae and others’ willingness to talk was impressive, since they risk local ridicule for opening up about the severity of the town’s heroin problem.
“Some people really needed to talk about it since they are no longer in that world and can speak more objectively. For some, too, it was a matter of helping clear their conscious and hopefully make a change happen now that they are recovered.”
One girl is in tears in the film, because she feels so much guilt for her actions, Connolly said.
Although she could stay in her adopted state forever, it’s coming down to the wire since most of the video taping is complete and some editing has been done.
Additional funding is needed to finish the project, and folks have responded to this request.
A Kickstarter page has received approximately $8,800 of the $23,000 needed to finish the documentary. Donated money will be used to cover the cost of sound-mixing and online editing that must be done at a post production facility.
Sixty supporters have made donations, and anyone else who’d like to help has until Aug. 18 to pledge money to the page.
When completed the feature-length film should be about 1 hour and 10 minutes long. It will be sent to film festivals, and hopefully be aired on television.
“I want it to get as much exposure as possible on this problem. That’s the whole point of it.”
Not finishing the project isn’t an option, and Connolly has done her best personally to finance it.
She’s even offering a week at a quaint Irish cottage in the seaside village of Annestown, County Waterford, for a pledge of $750 or more.
But it’s not just any cottage, it’s her own home.
“I am opening the door of my wee house in Ireland for anyone that wants to stay during the month of August. Please just support my kickstarter, for a chance to vacation in this little hideaway. Beautiful beach across the road, Then we will return to Ireland to take up residence and start a little film editing studio,” her Facebook post reads.
Fundraising isn’t easy when it comes to fighting opioid abuse, but the grassroots support has been touching and vital, she said.
“Not many media outlets want to mess with big pharma, because that’s where the money is, let’s face it. So we go it alone. But your help will make all the difference, and we need our voices heard on this. Our people are dying every day. Time to rise up.”