Making Connections

By Ken Mammarella
Photos courtesy Benjamin Wagner

In Friends & Neighbors, Benjamin Wagner bares his soul, talking about the stresses of being a globetrotting executive with a massive workload, the traumas that he knows now are called “adverse childhood experiences,” and the unhealthy coping mechanisms that he adopted.

They include witnessing domestic violence with both his parents; developing a dread of flying while shuttling between parents who divorced when he was 10; the instability of moving seven times by the same age; getting drunk for the first time at 13; getting high at 16; being assaulted in a Wawa parking lot as a teen; and drinking to cope with his adult stresses.

“I felt all alone,” he says early in the new documentary. “I was anxious, depressed and struggling.”

In the end, the 73-minute film — which has multiple screenings planned in May, for Mental Health Awareness Month — is a thoughtful and uplifting journey through sobriety, therapy, gym time, meditation, yoga, a daily gratitude log and, as the title promises — friends and neighbors.

Wagner lives in Wilmington with his wife Abbigail and their two daughters. They moved before the pandemic to escape New York’s intensity and returned to where Abbigail grew up — a place they had shared many joys with her family.

Wagner poses on the red carpet at the Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis, Indiana.

“I always looked for a community,” he says. “Purpose, soul and meaning.”

That search led him to film chats with their new Wilmington neighbors for their local community association.

“I think a hallmark of who I am is being interested in making connections with people,” adds Wagner. “Maybe because my family was so disconnected.”

Wagner wrote, directed and produced the film, devoting thousands of hours creating it, including emotional interviews with his parents and his brother Cristofer, who also worked as one of two editors.

Featured interviews include Alonna Berry, director of Community and Family Services for Delaware; Logan Herring, CEO of The WRK Group (a collection of three Wilmington nonprofits); Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride, one of the nation’s highest-profile transgender elected officials; Winden Rowe, founder of the Center for Change at Kennett Square; Lauren Scott, a Pennsylvania school counselor and a longtime friend; Anne Kubitsky, a Connecticut mental health advocate and founder of the Look for the Good Project; Dr. Zachary Mulvihill, a New York integrative health specialist; Matthew Tousignant, a another longtime friend, who combines hands-on bodywork with somatic psychology; and Michael Tyler, an Illinois author and thought leader.

“Traumatic experiences are the No. 1 public health crisis in the United States, and yet we don’t understand the significance of them,” Rowe says. Governments are recently taking notice. In 2018, Delaware named Berry as the state’s trauma-informed care coordinator, and Rowe served on a Pennsylvania panel to establish something similar.

Friends & Neighbors is the “spiritual sequel” to Mister Rogers & Me, Wagner’s 2012 documentary about the impact of TV icon Fred Rogers, a summer neighbor on Nantucket.

“The human experience is profoundly deep, but our culture is not,” he recalls Rogers telling him and challenging him to “spread the message.”

Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride contributed thoughts and perspective with Wagner.

Wagner has the tools to do so: degrees in creative writing and journalism and decades of experience with MTV News and Facebook’s Journalism Project.

The result so far: a multimedia exploration of mental well-being and the encouragement to talk “openly and comfortably” about depression, anxiety and other issues that includes the film, about 100 Friends & Neighbors podcasts, 2,000 blog posts and 217 pages of a 250-page book.

“Inspired by Fred Rogers’ belief that ‘What’s mentionable is manageable,’ Friends & Neighbors seeks to understand the somatic and neuropsychology behind this mental health crisis, and to look for the helpers healing our communities,” Wagner writes on Facebook. “I set out to understand the personal and cultural impact of trauma and find a path toward individual and collective healing.”

Another way of looking at Rogers’ quote involves a concept called affect labeling. “When you name it, it has less power,” he says. “I find that when I’m vulnerable, I give people permission to be vulnerable. And that’s what Fred did, too.”

Wagner, who has been composing and performing music since he was 15, considers music “an unconscious communication.” His 10th studio album is called Constellations, “because constellations are how we find our way.” He chose all his own works for the Friends & Neighbors soundtrack, except for a song by longtime friend Casey Shea that frames the film.

“I love how he sings about coming home. The movie is a hero’s quest, and the journey is to get home,” he says, adding elsewhere in the interview, “If you want to change the world, it helps to start at home.”

For Wagner, that home is Delaware, with its well-known overlapping communities and, at times, surprising connections. When Wagner met Charlie McDowell, chairman of the board of Reach Riverside, Wagner “couldn’t fathom the disparity” between his neighborhood and Riverside, Herring says, even though they are not that far apart geographically.

“I want to get to know it, walk it, drive around,” Wagner told Herring about Riverside, later volunteering to help the nonprofit with marketing and communication.

“You don’t have to live across the street to be a neighbor,” says Herring. “Mr. Rogers is the ultimate neighbor. It’s about being kind and treating everyone like your neighbor.”

Wagner now works as the founder of Essential Industries, which offers strategic consulting; professional and executive coaching; editorial, marketing, and communication services; keynote speaking; and workshops. Abbigail is the founder of Burton & Ashby, an interior design company.

“My wife makes calm interiors,” he says. “And I try to help people with calm insides.”


— Friends & Neighbors is now making the circuit of places that have special meaning to Wagner. Advance screenings scheduled so far include May 2 (7pm) at Theatre N in downtown Wilmington, with a panel that includes local participants. There will also be advance screenings May 11 (7pm) and May 12 (2pm) at Theatre N, plus May 17 at the Easttown Public Library in Berwyn, Pa., where he went to high school.

 Wagner is also working on advance screenings in downstate Delaware; Des Moines, Iowa, where he shot two acts of the film; Philadelphia; New York, where he lived; Syracuse, N.Y., where he attended college; Red Bank, N.J.; and other locations. The documentary is also available for rental (alongside the trailer and podcasts) on through May’s Mental Health Awareness Month only. And he is in early discussions for a 2025 broadcast premiere via American Public Television.

Mister Rogers & Me is available on Amazon and Apple. It, too, has a website:


Above: In creating Friends & Neighbors, filmmaker Benjamin Wagner (right) spoke with many experts in the field of childhood trauma including Lauren Scott, a Pennsylvania school counselor and longtime friend.