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Backstory: Best Test of Patience


Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Al and Debbie Wood with a photo of their daughter Naomi - BENJAMIN DEFLORIO
  • Benjamin Deflorio
  • Al and Debbie Wood with a photo of their daughter Naomi

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2022.

Last fall, I was reading a New Yorker exposé about Teen Challenge — a Christian organization that runs a network of residential programs for troubled teens — when a paragraph stopped me in my tracks.

"In May, 2020, Naomi Wood, a student at the Lakeland Teen Challenge, died," the article said. "She had been throwing up, almost constantly, for more than twenty-four hours. On the last day of her life, Naomi, who was born in Liberia and adopted by a family in Vermont, stayed in bed, and the staff left her alone for long stretches without checking on her, according to students and staff I interviewed."

I set down the magazine, googled the Wood family and quickly learned that they ran a century-old maple syrup operation in Randolph. Their business website displayed an assortment of photos of parents Al and Debbie Wood and their six children, as well as a somber message about 17-year-old Naomi's death.

I contemplated reaching out to the Woods to see if they'd be willing to speak with me, but I ultimately opted against it, so as not to be perceived as intrusive or pushy. After all, I thought, the family was probably still in mourning. I put the story idea on my already full back burner, figuring I might return to it in time.

Then, in May, while reporting a story about the Black Lives Matter flag being taken down at Randolph Union High School, I listened to a recording of a local school board meeting. During the public comment period, a man identified himself as Al Wood, Naomi's father. I interpreted his appearance as permission to approach. I emailed the Woods that day, explaining that I was a local reporter who was interested in learning more about the circumstances surrounding their daughter's death and how they were coping with their loss.

Debbie got back to me right away, saying she and Al were open to speaking. She also put me in touch with her eldest son, Nehemiah, who had recently become involved in efforts to regulate the troubled-teen industry. Over the course of several months, I talked with the family multiple times, learned more about Naomi's time at Teen Challenge through interviews and documents, and wove the threads into a cover story that came out almost 11 months after the New Yorker story was published.

It was a good reminder of the power of paying attention and illustrates the way in which one story often begets the next.