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Academy Award-winning producer returns to Buffalo State

Foster mother and child
Burchfield Penney Art Center
The documentary "FOSTER" will be screened Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Where do you go with an English degree from Buffalo State? For Deborah Oppenheimer, it was toward a career as a producer and winning an Academy Award. The Distinguished Alumna will appear at a series of events this week, including Thursday night at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. The Beyond Boundaries event starts at 7 p.m. and will feature a screening of the documentary "FOSTER," which Oppenheimer produced. Following the screening, she will hold a question-and-answer session with the audience.

WBFO's Jay Moran has more with Buffalo State Distinguished Alumna Deborah Oppenheimer

Producer Deborah Oppenheimer
Deborah Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer says "FOSTER" takes a deep dive into the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Spending a year in working to gain access to the many parties involved in the foster system, over 150 hours of interviews were filmed.

"We got quite an earful for a year of people who came in and really struggled with the work they were doing. A lot of times, social workers are wounded healers trying to do for others what they wish had been done for them.”

Oppenheimer hopes those who view FOSTER Thursday at the Burchfield Penney Art Center are moved to help the 400,000 children living in the foster system.

”I hope people would do something according to their capacity, whether it’s in the foster care system or whatever volunteerism that speaks to them, but something they could keep up with because not everybody can foster. You can donate. You can contribute to a Christmas drive. You can mentor. You can vote.”

It was her first documentary "Into the Arms of Strangers: Story of the Kindertransport" that won an Oscar. It told of the World War Two rescue mission that saved thousands of children from German territories. Oppenheimer’s mother was one of the children saved. Her grandparents were killed in concentration camps.

"It was a very personal project and a great passion project. I had never done a documentary before," Oppenheimer explained.

"I was working in comedy. I was doing (as executive producer) TV shows like George Lopez and Drew Carey and things like that at Warner Brothers. My mother had passed away. She had been rescued by the Kindertransport and my way of dealing with my grief was to try to find out what had happened to my mother. What was her experience in the Kindertransport. She never talked about it."

Initially, her research was conducted "as a civilian pursuing that for my own interests" before professional instincts gained a foothold.

"I began to have ideas and I began to think this might be a documentary.”

Teaming with writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris, the production eventually won the Oscar. The duo also collaborated on "FOSTER."

Since her days at Buffalo State, Oppenheimer has learned to trust her instincts. She suggests students do the same.

”Follow your gut. We spend a lot of time at work. Try to find something that you find rewarding to do, that puts you in a community of people who might not necessarily be your friends but who you can see and work with and enjoy collaborating with," Oppnheimer said.

"My favorite quote that my nephew taught me is attributed to Wayne Gretzky, which is ‘You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.’”

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Jay joined Buffalo Toronto Public Media in 2008 and has been local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" ever since. In June, 2022, he was named one of the co-hosts of WBFO's "Buffalo, What's Next."

A graduate of St. Mary's of the Lake School, St. Francis High School and Buffalo State College, Jay has worked most of his professional career in Buffalo. Outside of public media, he continues in longstanding roles as the public address announcer for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and as play-by-play voice of Canisius College basketball.