Angela Kennecke has covered thousands of stories in her broadcast journalism career, but the hardest story was the one that hit closest to home.
Kennecke has worked the past 30 years for Sioux Falls television station KELO as an anchor and investigative reporter. During the past decade, many of her stories have focused on the growing opioid crisis.
In May 2018, Kennecke was working on a story about Good Samaritan Laws and drug overdoses. Under the policy, people are protected from prosecution for drug use or possession when seeking emergency medical assistance for a drug overdose.
That day, the story became personal.
Kennecke received a call that her 21-year-old daughter, Emily, had fatally overdosed on fentanyl.
“The official report showed Emily had enough fentanyl that was six times more than would have killed the largest man, and she was a small woman,” Kennecke said.
Her daughter’s death was both tragic and heart wrenching. But as a mother and journalist, Kennecke decided to share her story — one she had told so often from the other side of the camera.
She shared the story Thursday at Mount Marty College, speaking to the Yankton Area Mental Wellness Institute’s summer conference. She offered a combination of personal testimony and video from television reports and other sources.
Kennecke has started a charity known as Emily’s Hope, because she had never given up hope for her daughter despite her addiction struggles. The television reporter decided to go public with her family situation in order to make a difference.
“My choice right now is to turn my heartbreak into action, to make sure that no other parent has to go through what we did after Emily died,” she said. “It was like having the rug ripped out from under you.”
After Emily’s death, Kennecke wasn’t sure she would return to work, or at least in broadcasting. However, she decided to resume her television career.
“I said I would come back (the following) fall, when my other kids would be in school,” she said. “But there are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to tell Emily’s story publically, and I wanted to do a special on the opioid crisis. (My employer) said, ‘Boy, I was hoping that would be your answer.’”
Kennecke was given tremendous leeway to tell the story on her terms. She told of a daughter who held many talents — intellectually, athletically and artistically — with great promise.
But it was all cut short.
“Evidently, the whole drug culture was really attractive to her, and I was concerned as a mom,” Kennecke said. “I really feel for every mother (in this situation). You don’t know where to turn, and there is so much stigma surrounding it. It’s so hard to talk to people around you.”
The family had hired an interventionist on a Saturday, and they planned the intervention on the following Saturday. “But my daughter died the next Wednesday, so we didn’t get a chance to ger her real help,” she said.
Although she works as a professional journalist, Kennecke said she can’t find the worlds to describe the loss and pain.
“I have a hole in my heart that will always be there, and it will never be healed,” she said. “I was robbed of my daughter. While they say they know where she got (the fentanyl) from, nothing will ever bring her back. She deserved a chance to get help. She engaged in risky behaviors, but she didn’t deserve to die.”
Kennecke decided she needed to tell Emily’s story.
“One of my biggest fears is that my daughter will only be remembered for how she died, and not how she lived,” she said.
Even as a child, Emily was a risk taker, a personality trait that would later contribute to her addiction, Kennecke said. However, she was also active in a wide variety of interests.
“One of the misconceptions we have as parents is that, if you get your kid involved in activities and you keep them busy, then you will insulate them or protect them from these very problems. Unforunately, it doesn’t,” Kennecke said.
She noticed changes in her daughter during high school.
“Emily had some really good friends, and she was doing all the normal things that high school freshmen should do. But about that time, things started to change. Before too long, she had dumped all her good friends for a different group,” she said.
“At the same time, she was very successful in art and was getting a lot of praise. She had so much talent. How did she go from that girl to someone injecting herself with heroin? I don’t have a clear answer to that.”
Emily was majoring in studio art at the University of South Dakota but would drop out of school and continue her drug usage.
Kennecke believes her daughter suffered from social anxiety and noted that addiction ran in the family. However, she also believes the outside influences were strong factors.
The family tried a variety of avenues to help Emily, from psychiatric evaluation to tough love, but nothing seemed to work.
“She went from being a healthy girl to somebody who was underweight with sunken eyes who started missing family events,” Kennecke said. “She was picking her face. I kept challenging her and asking other people, ‘Is it meth? Is she doing meth?’”
After dropping out of college, Emily worked in Sioux Falls.
“I would see her for lunch several days a week. She had that skanky marijuana smell, and I wasn’t happy about it,” Kennecke said. “Every time I confronted her, she became angry with me and I wouldn’t see her for a week. I would ask her, ‘What’s going on? What are you doing?’ There weren’t the signs that some people had when they were getting into trouble with the law. She had a DUI for marijuana in Vermillin, so I knew of the marijuana.”
Kennecke would later learn that a medical provider put her daughter on anti-anxiety medication despite her addiction issues.
Then came that terrible day.
After having dinner with her family during the week before the intervention, Kennecke went shopping. As she was leaving the store, she received a call from Emily’s father.
“He used a tone of voice I had never heard him use before,” Kennecke recalled. “He said, ‘Emily OD’d, and I think she’s dead.’ Those words didn’t even register in my brain. I knew about the marijuana and I knew about the ‘benzos,’ though she quit those.”
Kennecke didn’t know about the heroin addiction.
“I hopped in my car after those words (from Emily’s father) and started driving in the opposite direction of her apartment. I don’t know how I got myself turned around, but I drove to her apartment,” Kennecke said.
“There was a scene I had seen a million times in my job – an emergency scene with people standing around outside the apartment building, with the ambulance, firetruck and police. I ran up the three floors, and people were in the halls. It was surreal.”
She slipped past a police offer and entered her daughter’s apartment, where Emily was lying on the floor with paramedics working on her.
“I I just fell on my knees and started praying. I didn’t care that there were firemen and police everywhere. I prayed as hard and as much as I ever have.Then, 30 minutes later, they came out and told me they couldn’t save her. My prayers had not been answered,” she said.
“(Emily) put a needle in her, thinking it was herion, but it was six times the amount of fentanyl that would kill the largest man. She didn’t stand a chance.”
As she spoke Thursday at Mount Marty, Kennecke noted the shame often associated with drug usage and other addictions.
“It’s the shame that gets me. It’s a disease. If you have cancer or diabetes, they’re not shamed because of it,” she said. “If me speaking out publically the way I have since last September, if that can help reduce the shame and get more people to admit they have a problem and get help, then it’s worth the toll it takes on me to do it.”
Kennecke has found tremendous strength from others.
“Every time I think I can’t keep doing this, love shows up. I have really seen people come almost to my rescue to help my cause of Emily,” she said.
“One of the builders of the new Avera treatment center talked to Kennecke about using Emily’s artwork at the center. It was a way of her legacy living on, and they are starting up a scholarship fund for treatment at the Avera treatment center, which opens in October.
“The money will cover things like insurance co-payments or living expenses for patients. I want to raise $150,000 in one year for that fund, and it’s getting closer.”
She has also started her own non-profit as well, called Emily’s Hope, to raise funds for drug-related ducation materials in the schools. The next major event is a June 29 poker run.
Kennecke also plans to continue her broadcast work and travels to spread Emily’s story.
“If just one person hears me, if just one person does something to save a life, then I don’t care about a million naysayers or a million people who don’t understand,” she said. “I just care about the one mother that doesn’t experience the pain I have.”
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