Stories of Addiction

In my role as digital reporter for Vermont Public Radio, I’ve been working to covering addiction in Vermont, which has garnered national attention since Governor Peter Shumlin’s State of the State speech was devoted entirely to opiate addiction.

At VPR, I’ve covered the issue from the angle of treatment, statistical reporting, and how the state’s drug economy is sometimes fueled by illegal firearms trafficking (That story was picked up by NPR).

Most recently, I’ve been focused on the impacts of addiction on the families and friends of addicts.

Brennan Dekeersgieter died of a heroin overdose in the spring of 2013, and his family has been trying to come to grips with the loss for more than a year. I spoke with his parents, Robert and Margery, and his siblings Caitlin and Colin about Brennan and about how they think about him in his absence, and how they move forward. This is their story.

On a reporting trip covering one of these stories with VPR’s digital producer, Angela Evancie, we were talking about the fact that many drug-related deaths in Vermont communities exist without memorials. Despite this, their loved ones and friends may see a place or a thing, or hear a song, or smell a smell, and think immediately of their loss. In this way, addiction’s effects are extremely widespread in Vermont.

In an effort to explore and understand the way addiction effects Vermont, Angela and I worked with VPR Web Developer Matt Parrilla, News Director John Dillon, and Director of Digital Services Jonathan Butler to create Traces.

From the page (which you should check out, because Matt did an amazing job with it):

Drug addiction affects many in our community. Whether you’ve lost a family member to a drug overdose, lost touch with a friend who uses, or are fighting your own addiction, daily reminders—objects, places, people—can be anywhere. Traces is a collection of those reminders and the memories they evoke.

Traces was also featured in the public media trade publication, Current. From that article:

The project, titled Traces, grew out of a reporting project between VPR web producer Angela Evancie and reporter Taylor Dobbs. From November to February, the team visited small towns in southern Vermont to report on the intersection of drug possession and gun ownership in the state. Vermont has both lax gun laws and a high rate of addiction to opiates, meth and other substances, fostering an illicit market in which people trade guns for drugs, Evancie said.

“We found ourselves going to a lot of motel parking lots and gun stores around town and taking pictures and videos of these empty spaces,” she said. “We knew that things had happened there and we knew that, for certain people in town, these places had probably surfaced memories.”


New job: VPR Digital Reporter

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the news team at Vermont Public Radio as their digital reporter.

As news consumers move online for their content, many organizations, including VPR, have made a great effort to create robust and user-friendly web outlets. At VPR, they decided the next step was to hire a reporter to focus on digital-first news stories. That means the majority of my work will be published online, either in collaboration with VPR’s experienced  radio reporters or based on my own original reporting in the Chittenden County area.

I have long admired VPR’s dedication to excellence in journalism and commitment to the exciting developments in digital journalism, and I’m thrilled to be joining them in their efforts in early September.

Lessons learned: Covering the marathon bombings

I wrote a piece for Media Nation, which is Northeastern Professor Dan Kennedy’s blog, about my experience covering the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt in Watertown later in the week. You can check that out above.

Media Nation

Note: Northeastern journalism student Taylor Dobbs covered the Boston Marathon bombings and the final standoff in Watertown from the scene of both incidents, publishing stories and photos in Medium. Here he offers some advice to young journalists: Show up; be a witness; tell us what you know; don’t guess at what you don’t know.

Taylor DobbsBy Taylor Dobbs

In a fast-moving, violent situation, fear and confusion naturally prevail. Facts and hard truths are at a premium, and the most difficult thing to do is separate these disparate pieces and figure out what is happening.

As a journalist, I knew this was my job on the ground when I arrived at the edge of the police perimeter on Monday, April 15, minutes after a pair of bombs echoed through the crowded streets of Boston and then again when I headed to MIT after shooting was reported on the campus.

Show up

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Boston bombing and Watertown manhunt

A Boston SWAT officer spoke with a passerby near Boston Gardens.
A Boston SWAT officer spoke with a passerby near Boston Gardens.

I live four blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, so I heard the bombs go off on Monday, April 15, 2013. A few minutes later, I was outside taking photos. I wrote for Medium about the experience of walking through Boston as it went from a city in celebration to something out of a movie; SWAT teams, Army National Guard troops on Boston Common and non-stop sirens. For Thursday, I wrote my column in The Huntington News about the bombings and the city in mourning Boston had become.

I was interviewed by BBC World News and Vermont’s Fox 44 about the day’s events, and one of my professors, Dan Kennedy, featured my post in a roundup of writing about the attack. My coverage on Twitter in the hours immediately after the explosions got the attention of Mark Fischetti, who wrote a post about the value of social media during breaking news events. Meg Heckman, a graduate student at Northeastern who I’ve had the pleasure of working with this semester, wrote about the “Golden Hour” of news and the potential Medium has to become a haven for the photo/essay style of my post there.

Then, on Thursday night, news broke of a shooting at MIT, just across the river from my apartment. I grabbed my phone and ran over the bridge, where I met up with Seth Mnookin and Brian D’Amico, an MIT professor of science writing and a breaking news photographer, respectively. I knew both from Twitter, but hadn’t met either. We were standing behind the police tape chatting when a group of police cars sped away from the scene. The three of us hopped into Seth’s car and followed. We ended up being the first reporters on the scene in Watertown, arriving minutes after a gun fight between the Tsarnaev brothers – ultimately named as suspects in Monday’s bombing – and police. I wrote my account of the night for Medium. Seth Mnookin wrote about the scene in Watertown for The New Yorker. Brian D’Amico published his photos on Flickr.

In my home state of Vermont, the Burlington Free Press’ Matt Ryan wrote a story about the adventure. The paper also published some of my iPhone photos from the night. My former editor, Anne Galloway of, also wrote a story on the experience. I had the privilege of speaking with David Kroll’s newswriting class down at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. as well.

Reported Column: Sandwiches and Soldiers

I’ve been a columnist for The Huntington News this year, and recently got the chance to write a column about the family that runs a popular sandwich shop on Northeastern’s campus.


Sandwiches and soldiers, a family business

If you have been into Chicken Lou’s in the past couple of years, you might have noticed a photo of two Marines next to the cash register. Maybe you asked one day, like I did, who’s in it.

If you asked Denise Styffe, the white-haired woman whose boisterous personality behind the counter keeps Lou’s running during lunch rush, she probably didn’t take her eyes off the photo when she answered you. The Marines are her son Danny and her nephew Eric.

The pair grew up together in Arlington, the grandchildren of Lou Ferretti, better known as Chicken Lou. As Lou, Denise, her sister Dianne and her brother David served up lunch to Northeastern students for the past two decades, Danny and Eric were dreaming of putting on their uniforms and shipping off to war. Their units had a week-long overlap in North Carolina shortly before they were set to be sent to Afghanistan. They got to spend some time together, and that’s when the photo was taken. It’s the last time they’d ever see each other.

Weeks later, as Denise anxiously awaited Danny’s call from some base a world away, she got totally different news. Eric was dead. He’d died in his sleep shortly before he was set to join Danny and the thousands of other U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The call from Danny came a little while later. He was about to get on a helicopter and fly into harm’s way – a combat outpost where he’d stay for four to six weeks with no way to call home.

Her son’s temporary departure and her nephew’s permanent one made 2011 a difficult year for Styffe. As she helped Dianne, Eric’s mom, through the tragedy, she had the constant worry that a car full of Marines would pull up to the house, a sure sign that the worst had happened. But Eric’s death – at home in his bed, by some strange confluence of biological events – in an odd way, gave Denise a peace with the forces at work.

“No matter how much I worry, no matter how much I do, God makes His final decision,” Styffe says, sitting outside Chicken Lou’s on a sunny Monday afternoon.

“It’s hard,” she tells me more than once. She sends Danny a text every night before she goes to bed, knowing he won’t read them for months. But she wants him to know, upon his return, that she was thinking of him every night.

When I ask about Danny’s first tour, his mother raises her eyebrows and covers her eyes. He won a medal on that tour. Taking sniper fire from two places, she says, Danny ran into the open with a rocket launcher and took out one of them, returned to cover to load a new rocket and did it again. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Valor for his actions.

“When I found out I was …” Denise holds her arms out in a strangling motion.

“I kept telling him:  ‘When the bullets fly, play possum,’” she says. But she knows he won’t. With eight soldiers in his command now, Lance Corporal Daniel Styffe is trained to react first and think later. He’ll run into fire for them, and they’ll do the same for him. Denise knows that’s what keeps him and his men alive, but it doesn’t help her rest easy at night.

“Hey!” her brother David, a Northeastern alumnus, is yelling at me from behind the counter. “Don’t let her tell you she’s younger than me.” We all laugh (I didn’t ask her age), and I see the weight of the worry leave Denise.

The constant banter with her brother and her youngest son Tyler, who also works at Lou’s, make me feel less like I’m at a sandwich joint in the middle of campus and more like I somehow walked into the Styffe kitchen and struck up a conversation. In many ways I did; Chicken Lou himself came into work every day until he died in 2002. He sat in the worn green chair that you can still find between the drink coolers. It’s easy to see why Denise is able to come in to Lou’s and stay upbeat, with the support of her brother David and son Tyler under the same small roof along with many members of the Northeastern community who stop in and ask for updates.

Three weeks ago, Danny called in the middle of the night. She knew as soon as she saw the strange, four-digit number on the caller ID: He was getting on another helicopter, flying to another remote outpost. Going to war again.

At Chicken Lou’s that day, I asked Denise about her son, as I had a couple times before.

“I got the call last night, actually. He just went out,” she said cheerfully while she rang up my TKO, as though she was telling me about a hockey game he played in, not a war. No evidence of the weight of worry, or the hundreds of prayers or texts she would send over the next weeks and months, hoping that in time both will be answered.

A year after Irene, a family’s livelihood still in ruins

On assignment for, I went to Stockbridge, Vt. last week to see the White River Valley Campground, which was almost completely destroyed when Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont late August, 2011. Here’s that story.

Rebecca Smith can’t stand the sound of rushing water.

On Tuesday it will be a year since floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene swept away much of the campground she ran with her husband, Drew, just off Route 107 in Gaysville, a village in the town of Stockbridge.

Rebecca nearly drowned as she escaped the high water that engulfed their 22-acre property within a matter of minutes.

This week as she stood in the barren floodplain of the White River among rocks – most of them far too large to have come from the campground fire pits the floodwaters washed away – she describes how she heard the boulders knocking against each other as the river, now quietly running through a shallow bed of sand and stone, raged on that Sunday night a year ago.

Read the rest on

A look at Campaign for Vermont

Over at VTDigger, I looked into Campaign for Vermont, a group that emerged last fall putting ads on the radio. In response, one of the founders wrote an op-ed criticizing the piece and Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont blog picked it up. Here are those three posts in part; click through to read them in full.

Why is Bruce Lisman spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ‘start a conversation’?

Campaign for Vermont became a player on the political scene in Vermont late last year — thanks to the largesse of a single wealthy individual and an aggressive local media advertising blitz.

But eight months since a group of prominent conservatives founded the 501(c)(4) organization, its purpose remains unclear.

What is Campaign for Vermont, and more to the point, what is the group trying to accomplish?

The founder of Campaign for Vermont, Bruce Lisman, says the organization doesn’t adhere to a political point of view, but the group has pushed for fiscally conservative ideas outside the traditional Republican Party construct.

Campaign for Vermont, through hyperlocal radio advertising, has indirectly criticized “Montpelier,” a.k.a. Democrats who hold the governor’s office and the Statehouse, for “out-of-control” state spending. It has also chastised the executive and legislative branches for not being transparent enough about the way taxpayer dollars are used by state government.

In a recent email missive to supporters, Lisman wrote that “Campaign for Vermont believes that higher property taxes, increased electric rates and a risky health care scheme will strangle a vibrant economy.”

Lisman, a native of Burlington’s North End, and a former executive with Bear Stearns and J.P. Morgan, says he is trying to draw attention to the state’s financial future through a “campaign for a prosperous economy.”

Listen closely to GOP candidates such as Randy Brock, who is running for governor, and Wendy Wilton, who is making a bid for state treasurer, and familiar Campaign for Vermont themes emerge.

After months of Campaign for Vermont’s focus on “prosperity,” Brock’s media consultant Robert Wickers said in a statement that “[a]s Vermonters learn more about Randy, and hear his positive message of economic growth and prosperity, this race will tighten.” Brock and Campaign for Vermont have also criticized the growth of the budget this year (an overall rate of 6.3 percent).

In the group’s first radio advertisement, Lisman said, “It’s time to use modern technology to make Vermont state government totally transparent and accountable to every citizen.”

Wilton, at her campaign launch for treasurer, echoed that sentiment: “Information is key, but it’s the ease of that information that’s really important too. Because it’s got to be readily available, you’ve got to be able to see it and understand it, and it can’t be in some really arcane spot within the state’s website where you’d never find it even if you put it in a search function. It’s got to be somewhere where people can see it easily.”

Jake Perkinson, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, suggests that Campaign for Vermont might be a “launching pad” for a political candidate — most likely Lisman himself. Though he is the face of the organization — his portrait is on email messages and the website — Lisman has said repeatedly that he has no interest in running for office.

Kevin Ellis, a communications strategist with KSE Partners and a supporter of Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin, says Campaign for Vermont is the Vermont GOP’s ad hoc messaging machine, laying the electoral groundwork for Republican Party candidates this election cycle.

He also speculates that Lisman wants to be a kingmaker. Ellis says Campaign for Vermont’s ubiquitous advertising could be a potential prelude to financing candidates in 2014 — in the event that Vermont’s campaign finance limits are knocked down in the courts.

“Sure, he may give money to candidates,” Ellis said. “But I think he is a millionaire from Wall Street who came to Vermont and wanted to be a player. Spending this money is the best and fastest way to do that. Spending this money makes him a political player, scares the heck out of Democrats and makes him the toast of the Burlington cocktail party circuit among Republicans. But that is a long, long way from playing on the varsity team against pros like Peter Shumlin, Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy. To steal a phrase from David Plouffe, those guys play chess. Lisman is still playing checkers.”

Read the rest at

Op-ed: Words and Facts Collide by Tom Pelham

Taylor Dobbs, reporting for VTDigger, might use his recent article covering Campaign for Vermont as a teachable moment about poor journalistic technique. Dobbs, a recent graduate of Montpelier High School and candidate for a BA in Journalism from Northeastern University next January, chose the easy but less informing route. He gathered up the observations and quotes from a handful of insider politicos, namely Jake Perkinson from the Vermont Democratic Party, Jack Lindley from the Vermont Republican Party, political commentator Eric Davis and Montpelier lobbyist Kevin Ellis and presto, he had a political story to tell.

Dobbs’ slant on Campaign for Vermont is that we are not only about politics, but about Republican politics and more, about conservative Republican politics and his politically oriented but fact-challenged sources, not surprisingly, affirmed this perspective.

Dobbs does a disservice to the mission of VTDigger “to create a platform of consistent delivery of fact-driven reports on matters of public interest and to serve as a catalyst for more open debates on key issues that impact Vermonters’ daily lives” and to those seeking informed, balanced reporting rather than slant. In the same way that VPIRG and VNRC are policy-driven organizations focused largely on environmental issues, Campaign for Vermont is a policy-driven organization focused on the future prosperity of Vermont.

Questioning whether or not Campaign for Vermont, at its core, is about politics or public policy is fair game. Like Gov. Shumlin, Bruce Lisman is a wealthy individual who could mount a substantially self-funded effort for elective office. For those who primarily view the world through the prism of politics, like those interviewed for Dobbs’ article, the clear answer is that Bruce, despite his statements to the contrary, has political aspirations.

Read the rest at

And finally, the Green Mountain Daily post, Tom Pelham has a sad:

Awww, some bruised fee-fees over at Campaign for Vermont, the “nonpartisan” policy shop that’s obviously and blatantly conservative to anyone with a brain who spends five minutes reading their website or listening to their radio ads.

It seems that those dastardly folks at Vermont Digger committed an act of journalism. It took a long hard look at CFV and its founder/funder Bruce Lisman, and published a story pointing out the obvious: that CFV is conservative, that its policy positions are closely aligned with the Republicans’, that all its attacks are against the Democrats, that Lisman is spending a whole lot of money and nobody knows what his real ambitions are.

And that gave Tom Pelham a sad.

Read the rest at Green Mountain Daily

A semester as news editor of The Huntington News

I spent the spring semester as the news editor of Northeastern University’s student newspaper, The Huntington News, where I coordinated coverage of all on-campus (or near campus) news, including student government, administration and other student issues.

It was a totally new experience, and learning to manage a staff and coordinate photography and reporting for multiple stories at once was definitely a challenge, but I am very glad I had the chance to do it. Some of the stories I’m especially proud of from the semester, in no particular order and not necessarily written by me:

Coverage of the Barstool Sports Blackout Tour, which sparked controversy from women’s rights activists at Northeastern:

Coverage of a proposed Chick-fil-A location in Northeastern’s Curry Student Center, which caused outrage in the LGBT community:

Northeastern’s cafeteria workers spoke out against their managers, who they say mistreated them:

I’ll be spending another summer with starting tomorrow. I’ll be covering the campaign season here in Vermont, as well as other political happenings.

In Haiti, a health care oasis


I wrote for Haiti Rewired about a new hospital in Central Haiti, finishing construction this year.

MIREBALAIS, Haiti – Officials and builders from Haiti, The Dominican Republic, and the United States gathered here Tuesday to celebrate the completion of phase one of construction on the Mirebalais National Teaching Hospital. The 320-bed facility, located just outside downtown Mirebalais, is the result of a collaborative effort between the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) and Partners in Health, an American non-profit focused on international public health.

Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, spoke at the event about his first time in Haiti as a young medical student in 1983.

“The first year, let me tell you, was a terrible experience medically,” he said. Farmer recalled the disappointment he felt when he visited a clinic he was involved with. “[It was terrible] to go into a clinic that you were actually involved in running, as I was, and supporting, as I did ardently, but see that the quality of care was so poor that it would be a better idea to shut the clinic down, which is what we did.”

Farmer said that first year inspired a dream, which is being realized by the new hospital in Mirebalais.

Read the full article on Haiti Rewired.