Marshall Professor Debuts TV Pilot

Destiney Dingess, Reporter

An emotional crowd gathered around to watch the pilot episode of “Her Hope Haven,” a new series that tells the story of women in recovery late Thursday night on Sep. 1.   

A story about women building relationships and bonds as they go through treatment from substance use disorder was created and written by Ashley Ellis and Tijah Bumgarner, the latter a narrative and documentary video production professor and filmmaker at Marshall University.   

The film walks us through the life of Ashley Ellis who helped create, write, cast, act and advise on all elements of making this film before she passed away in November. 

Central to the film is that all the cast are women in recovery, so not only are they bringing a conversation about something happening in West Virginia, but they are bringing up their lives and reliving their lives, Michelle Alford, library information systems technologist at Marshall University, said.   

Initially, the series wasn’t supposed to happen. A little over four years ago, Bumgarner started working on what she thought would be a short documentary about a family building their life back together after it almost crumbled. Still, that short documentary ended up being a longer piece about Ellis and her mother, Debi Ellis.   

Bumgarner found that while filming for four years, she and the co-maker of the documentary had too much film for a one-to-two-hour documentary and found themselves losing parts of the story they loved. Bumgarner brainstormed with Ellis about what they could do.  

“I told her what we could do is make a series; series are hot right now. It just kind of went from there and those moments of levity and humanizing these stories of the women who are in treatment or anyone who’s in treatment and recovery or an active drug user,” Bumgarner said. “We are all humans, so we are trying to show this other piece of the stories we don’t often get in the news or even some documentaries.”   

Along with Ellis, the inspiration for the series came from Bumgarner’s family experiences with substance use disorder.  

“I lost my dad to an overdose, so working through him having substance use disorder and being in active addiction and losing him,” Bumgarner said. “It’s just humanizing these stories and the people who were caught in some of this in no fault of their own. It’s a bigger systemic issue and insufficient treatment options.”   

Bumgarner hopes that “Her Hope Haven” shows that we are humans first, and everyone deserves love and respect.   

Media outlets can be very damning to people having a hard time, Bumgarner said. There was a quote in one of my student projects that I love that said they didn’t get into this overnight, and you can’t get out of it overnight. It takes time and shows that people do care, especially in West Virginia, where so many of us are touched by substance abuse disorder in many different ways, I think it’s important to tell that story from the inside instead of looking in from the outside,” said Bumgarner.   

Attending the screening, Debi Ellis voiced her gratitude for the memory of her daughter and her story.   

“I couldn’t be prouder of how this panned out,” Debi said. “I would not do the documentary if it was Hollywood style. I wanted it to be raw and real. I didn’t want to fake anything; I didn’t want to add anything. It had to be true, so this is true.”   

The pilot episode shows Debi and Ellis entering the treatment center, where the staff tells them it is a long-term facility. Both women were shocked as they thought it was only a three-month treatment center.   

“I knew before we left that the treatment center was long-term. Ashley didn’t know that she thought it was three months. If she had known it was longer, leaving a four-month-old Piper at home, she probably wouldn’t have gone,” Debi said. “It shows that they were shocked; I wasn’t shocked.”  

The pilot also shows the women of the treatment center arguing about the clothes brought to them or donated; Debi explained that this was real. They would always argue over clothes.  

“If somebody were on duty, they would always do the midnight shift because it was boring, so they always sorted things during the midnight shift,” Debi said. “I got to know everyone and love all these women every time I went. They watched Piper grow up. When people in the community donated baby clothes, they always ensured they put them away for Piper. It was just such a loving sorority of women that developed, and when one overdoses, one passes or if one relapses, they would all gather and strengthen each other and share the burden.”   

For anyone who wants to support the series, Bumgarner says to keep an eye on it on social media and the website for news on the continuation of Ellis’s story. Bumgarner also wants to apply for grants to further “Her Hope Haven.”   

“I shouldn’t be telling her story; it is her story, and we worked closely together on this project. She should be here talking about it, not me,” Bumgarner said. “I feel that I have her mom’s support; if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be able to continue it, I don’t think, but I think it’s important because Ashley was a constant in so many women’s lives of lifting them and helping them with what their struggles are and I tell myself that she would want to continue if she could so that’s part of why I feel I hope to continue.”   

Destiney Dingess