Alyssa Gelfand remembered at her classmates’ graduation

— Photo from Ormondo Turner 
Blue sky: Best friends Ormondo Turner, left, and Alyssa Gelfand took this picture one day just after they emerged from the mall. 

GUILDERLAND — It’s been a little over a year since a car crash on Hurst Road took the life of 17-year-old Alyssa Gelfand, who was to have graduated on June 23 with Guilderland’s Class of 2018.

Her friends say Alyssa was kind and funny and could always make them feel better when they were worried or depressed. “I knew if I was down, I could call her and she would bring me up to that point of, ‘OK, I got this,’” said one.

Alyssa is remembered during this time of transition by her many close friends; by a young woman who received a scholarship in her name; and by her father, who is hard at work across the country, making a feature film about her.

Her father’s way of dealing with grief is not to close himself off, but to reach out and get to know Alyssa’s friends, because, he says, that’s what she would do, if she were in his shoes.

“My True Fairytale”

Alyssa’s father, Dmitry Gelfand, 43, is an independent filmmaker. Since his daughter’s death, he has been at work on a film titled “My True Fairytale” about her death — or, rather, her transformation.

The “log line” for the film, which Gelfand said is a two-sentence description used to sell a film, reads: “A teen goes missing after a horrific car crash. From unknown whereabouts, accompanied by a series of mysterious events, she returns claiming to be an invisible superhero with a mission to save the world.”

A voiceover opens the movie, Gelfand says, in which the Alyssa character recounts, “Ever since I was a little girl I had this dream one day I’d become a superhero in my very own stage — I could fly, be invisible, and have the ability to save the world. Funny thing is, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, because, one day, it will come true.”

“As a filmmaker, right now I’m trying to separate myself from being a father, a grieving father,” Gelfand said. “I wanted to make it extremely hopeful and uplifting,” he said of the film.

The script was emotionally difficult to write, he said, adding, “I could not have done it without Alyssa. I really felt her presence.”

He said he often felt himself “painted into a corner” during the writing of the script, unable to figure how to get out. As he struggled through those points, he said, he saw signs he felt were Alyssa “steering me to the right-of-way, so to speak, of how I should fix these certain spots.”

 

— Photo from Internet Movie Database 
Labor of love: Independent film director Dmitry Gelfand has written and is preparing to shoot “My True Fairytale,” a feature film about his daughter, Alyssa, who was killed in a car crash just over a year ago.

 

One of these signs, he said, came after he had written a scene in which daughter and father have a falling-out after an argument.

Gelfand and his daughter were actually very close, he said, despite the rift in the storyline. “For the sake of the film, we have to exaggerate a little bit.”

He didn’t know how to correct things between the characters in the film after that rift. Then a song came on the radio by Coldplay, with the refrain, he said, “I’ll fix you.”

It hit him that this was a sign from Alyssa, he said.

“That was the line the character should have given to her father, ‘I’ll fix you,’” he said. “And it became a line in the film.”

The film has seven storylines, Gelfund said, and is structured like the Oscar-winning movie, “Crash,” in which seemingly separate stories come together and illuminate one another by the end of the film.

“My True Fairytale” is now, Gelfand says, “very heavy into pre-production” in Seattle, Washington. Pre-production, he said, means, doing casting, securing the locations, and securing the crew.

Gelfand plans to shoot the film in Washington, from early September through early October, probably mostly in a small town 20 or 30 miles north of Seattle. He wanted to make the film near Seattle, where he started his film career, has many film-industry connections, and feels most comfortable, he said.

He hopes to get distribution from a major film company; he said he “had a lot of success with the script in L.A.,” but the possibilities he had to sell the script, he said, required that a big-name director take the reins.

He said simply, “I need to direct this film.”

Asked about funding, Gelfand said it is “incredibly difficult to find funding for this sort of film” without “big names attached.”

He has been lucky with previous films, Gelfand said, and won many awards, but he had made those films on very small budgets of between about $5,000 and $12,000. Gelfand will make this film, like his others, under the name D. Mitry.

For this, his first full-length feature film, he said, he is using his daughter’s college fund, which will provide “a huge chunk” of the necessary funding. Money raised through a GoFundMe account let him start work on the film, he said, and he is in discussions with several potential investment companies. (The Enterprise contributed $500 to the film, prize money for a community Leadership Award from the New York Press Association for coverage surrounding the Hurst Road crash.)

The movie will have a “sophisticated behind-the-scenes program,” Gelfand said, involving a press campaign with a dedicated media director, a website, and a film about making the movie.

He meets with Alyssa’s many friends whenever he comes to the Capital District, and at one point he read the script aloud to all of them, he says; he continues to be in touch on a daily basis with at least 10 of her closest friends, through calls or texts.

Does it not make him feel bad, to see other kids her age, who knew her?

“I always ask myself,” Gelfand answered, “What would Alyssa want me to do? How would Alyssa act, if she was in my shoes? And the answer is very simple: It is to reach out and be as close to them as she would be.”

Ojukwu “embodies all that Alyssa stood for”

A scholarship in Alyssa’s name went to Ifeyinwa Ojukwu, a Guilderland classmate who plans to go to Syracuse University in the fall, the same college Dmitry Gelfand says Alyssa fell in love with when the two of them visited the school a week before her car accident.

The idea for the scholarship came from her classmates, who wanted to do something in her honor and decided to fundraise by selling wristbands printed with her name, said Lisa Bedian, one of the class’s two advisors.

The class then matched the wristband proceeds with funds the Class of 2018 had raised over four years.

Alyssa’s family also contributed to the scholarship, Bedian said.

The graduation program describes the scholarship: “Awarded in memory of Alyssa Gelfand, Alyssa was loving, energetic, independent, fearless and welcoming of everyone.” The scholarship is awarded to a graduating senior who is headed to Syracuse University, the program says, where Gelfand had hoped to study business, and who “embodies all that Alyssa stood for.”

Ojukwu — whose friends call her “Ify” (pronounced “Ee-fee”) — was a very successful hurdler on Guilderland’s track-and-field team; she hurdled for four years.

She said she had met Alyssa, but didn’t know her well.

“We had mutual friends. I just knew she was such a great and sweet person,” Ify said of Alyssa.

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
On her way: Ifeyinwa Ojukwu received the Alyssa Gelfand Scholarship Award, given this year to a student headed to Syracuse University — where Alyssa had hoped to study — and who, like Alyssa, is “loving, energetic, independent, fearless, and welcoming of everyone.” 

 

At Syracuse, Ify plans to study biology and ethics. Biology, she said, because it is similar to anatomy and physiology, which are not offered at Syracuse, and ethics because she sat in on an ethics class during a visit to the university and found it fascinating.

She doesn’t plan to join the track team. “D-1 is kind of intense,” she said, referring to Syracuse’s inclusion in the most highly ranked college division.

She wants to become a doctor in the area of diagnostic radiology, which she said involves looking at X-rays and other images to make a diagnosis.

“Ify is a tremendous young woman,” Bedian said. “Ify is absolutely that kind of young woman that puts everyone at ease — very outgoing, kind, generous, always concerned about people other than herself.”

“We couldn’t have asked for anyone to emulate what we were looking for any better,” the class advisor added.

Many ‘best friends’

Many people describe Alyssa Gelfand on social media as one of their “best friends.”

Kiara Brooks, a 2018 graduate who will attend Hudson Valley Community College and hopes to become a midwife, said she visits the site of the crash every day.

“Graduation is huge,” she said, “a new step forward, and we’re doing things like decorating our caps for graduation, and getting our graduation dresses, and there has not been one moment I did not think, ‘Alyssa should be here.’”

The accident has left her with regret, she said, because she told Alyssa, just before she died, that she would hang out with her the next weekend. Kiara’s father always used to tell her, she said, to stop working and go hang out with her friends.

“It makes you appreciate the friends you have now,” she said.

Gabriella Fiederlein, who graduated last year, echoed Alyssa’s father, saying that she has received signs from Alyssa. Hers have taken the form of dreams.

In several dreams since the accident, Alyssa has appeared to reassure her friend and to tell her, for instance, that she is OK. She is, Alyssa told Gabby in one dream, “safe and sound.”

Shahnila Mahmood, who graduated June 23 and will attend Russell Sage College, said she sometimes feels guilty when she is doing something that Alyssa would have enjoyed: “Like a song I can listen to and she can’t. Or a concert she would love to go to, but she can’t.”

Ormondo Turner, who graduated a year ago, was described by another friend as Alyssa’s “top best friend.” He said he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to be as open toward making new friends as he was before.

He said he was both surprised and not surprised to hear about her accident. She is fearless and independent, which does carry its own risks, he said; he often refers to her in the present tense.

“She is so outgoing, and she does anything and everything. She loves to explore, so the possibility of her getting hurt was a big possibility, but I never expected somebody in my life to go like that. I just never expected it to be her,” Ormondo said.

He is not sure exactly what she would have chosen to do with her life. Airplanes were a passion of hers, and she had a collection of them in her room. She liked to watch YouTube videos of planes flying; another friend said she liked to go to the Albany International Airport to watch airplanes take off and land.

She was never afraid, including of taking long plane rides by herself, Ormondo said. She often flew on planes by herself, starting from about ninth grade when she traveled alone to meet her parents in Las Vegas, he said, and her father confirmed.

Alyssa’s parents and paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Russia before she was born. When she was 12, Alyssa moved with her parents to Aruba in the Caribbean. Alyssa spent her high-school years in Guilderland with her paternal grandparents while her parents settled in Seattle, a city new to them, and then, a year later, divorced. Alyssa continued to meet each of them in far-flung places.

She had taken honors English at Guilderland High School and was really excited about that, Ormondo said, and she was interested in business.

What he does know is that she was planning to go to Syracuse University, and he was already attending Le Moyne College, also in Syracuse, studying to become a nurse. He was looking forward to continuing their trips to the mall or to get sushi or their sudden dance parties in her room.

“I was so excited, because we would have been like right next to each other,” he said.

Sergio Medina graduated on June 23, after surviving the crash that killed Alyssa. He and Sophia Melfe, who will graduate next year, were passengers in Alyssa’s car.

Sergio is one of those who calls Alyssa his “best friend.” The two hung out at least once a week, went to the gym together, and FaceTimed every night, he says.

“It was really tough,” he said of graduating without her. “It was a constant reminder that I got to where I am right now because of her.”

Sergio, who will attend the State University of New York at Brockport, doesn’t think he would be the same person he is now if he had never met Alyssa, he says. He moved to the United States from Mexico about three years ago, when the Mexican pharmaceutical company his father works for opened an office in Albany.

Sergio said of Alyssa, “She always believed in me … and she was really nice and sweet since the beginning.”

The accident left him with a concussion and leg pain that has since gotten better.

He feels guilty about not having done something to tell Alyssa to slow down the car — they were listening to music, having fun, and “we got caught up on the moment.” He also feels closer to her for knowing he was “one of the last ones to witness her presence.”

Sophia Melfe, who was the other passenger in the car with Alyssa and Sergio, said she misses Alyssa a lot and is still confused about how someone so young and full of life could be taken away so suddenly.

“I think it’s changed me,” she said, “made me cherish friends more, and the people in my life — be grateful to them, because they could be taken at any time.”

 

— Photo from Kiara Brooks
Sergio Medina, left, who was a passenger in Alyssa Gelfand’s vehicle when the crash occurred, and Kiara Brooks, another of Gelfand’s close friends, pause for a photo — with small hearts superimposed on it with a filter — at Guilderland’s June 23 commencement ceremony. Gelfand was to graduate with them.