A German soccer referee and a Goodwill shooting: reporter Saphara Harrell’s top stories of 2019

Reporter Saphara Harrell.

Each year in anticipation of the new year I get giddy at the prospect of new beginnings. I set my sights on future intentions, goals and plans. And while I’m inclined to leave 2019 in the rearview mirror, there were some bright moments in my reporting at Salem Reporter worth reflecting on.

Last year was bleak for journalists. Consolidations, layoffs and a general feeling of anxiety clouded the landscape. But those very things sharpened my focus on the positive. I sought out stories that would not only make me feel a bit of optimism, but also provide optimism for our readers. Pointing out what isn’t working is important, but it’s just as important to show what IS working.

First off, let me tell you I love writing profiles. To me it is the one form of news writing that transcends geography. I am always interested in reading a good story about someone, no matter where they’re from. I can’t say the same about city council meetings.

After half a century, Salem soccer referee still can’t take his eyes off the game

I have to thank photographer Ron Cooper for this one. He’s been friends with John Plechl for a while and was always amazed to see the 86-year-old at the gym each week. Plechl had a great story to tell, going all the way back to former Yugoslavia during World War II.

I went out to a soccer game Plechl was refereeing. It was a beautiful fall day, sunny but not quite warm. I noticed how Plechl took time to explain the game to the players, an impression backed up by everyone I talked to. He’s a person with a real passion for soccer and it shows. I’m grateful that I was able to give readers a glimpse into his life.

21 SECONDS: An arrest gone awry leads to mortal fight in a Salem thrift store

Every reporter wishes they had more time for a story. That’s not always how things shake out, but I was lucky that I had time to work through this one. I requested and read through hundreds of documents to find out what happened that day in the crowded Goodwill store. Initially details were scarce, but through interviews I was able to piece together a narrative of what led up to the event, even factors that occurred years before.

People aren’t one-dimensional – their lives, decisions and trajectory all follow a unique path. Reporting this story solidified my belief in that.

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Salem Fire says increasing calls are straining the department

This story took me some time to report. I went on two separate ride-alongs with the Salem Fire Department to get an understanding of what the ever increasing call volume looked like for those tasked with responding. My first day, the firefighters joked that I had brought a “white cloud,” keeping the calls from coming in. I didn’t go on a single call that summer day, so I tried again a second time with the fire station that ran the most calls.

As soon as I got there, we were off. The calls kept rolling in: a man huffing air duster, a woman who tried to commit suicide and a small brush fire on the side of the road. I was able to see how most of the calls were medically related. Later I wanted to find out how the fire department was changing to meet that demand as were other fire department in the area. This is an issue that’s plaguing fire departments across the country and it isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Refugee youth choir brings joyful songs, dances to Salem

When I found out there was a choir full of refugees in Salem, I knew I had to find out more. What resulted was a meeting with a group of kids who have many stories to tell. But the way they like to express themselves the most is through music.

Two of the members of the choir I spoke to explained how music had been a daily part of their lives going back to their time in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Their choir director explained he was able to escape the darkness around him by turning to music.

Earlier this year, he decided to get a group of young refugees together to sing and they’ve been doing it ever since. You might have seen them at the World Beat Festival last summer.

Capitol City Theater is at the nexus of Salem’s comedy scene

This was one of the first stories I wrote when I started at the Salem Reporter, and it’s still one of my favorites. When I moved here, I was surprised that a city the size of Salem had a dedicated comedy club. Eugene and Medford don’t have one.

I started out by going to one of the open mic nights. I found myself laughing for most of the night as the comedians worked through new material onstage. Later, I talked to the owners and learned how their passion for both comedy and Salem has propelled the club forward. It’s a place I’ve returned to many times since for fun.  

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Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.