What are tomorrow’s leaders doing — and dreaming of doing — to positively impact our communities and the future of health care? In this series, we profile outstanding young people who work at Highmark Health or that we have partnered with or supported. As a Jefferson Awards Champion and supporter of related youth programs like Students in Action and Lead360, Highmark is pleased to kick off the series with a future leader who exemplifies the ideal of community service: Alexis Werner.

Highmark is deeply committed to volunteerism and public service, both in the workplace and as a sponsor or partner for organizations doing good work in our communities. That includes being certified as a Jefferson Awards Champion, and supporting related programs like Students In Action (SIA), which has trained more than 10,000 student leaders who have generated over 11 million hours of service.

In 2014, we hosted a regional SIA conference at our Pittsburgh headquarters. That event also put us back in touch with Alexis Werner. In 2012, Highmark had worked with SIA to help Alexis publish Seeds of Hope: The Beginning, a children’s book about volunteering, supporting veterans and healthy eating. (How could an organization with our values not get involved with that!)

Since then, Alexis’ many accomplishments include (but are not at all limited to):

  • Expanding Seeds of Hope, a community gardens project she co-founded in 2011 to provide food to local veterans and their families, into eight states
  • Being named a national Jefferson Awards GlobeChanger
  • Getting selected for a 2014 Prudential Spirit of the Community Award, as well as a Spirit of Unity Award for social justice work at the 14th Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast
  • Working on a full-length documentary film about veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

We have no doubt that Alexis will continue to make a difference as a new student at Temple University — and we are pleased that she agreed to be the first person highlighted in our Future Leaders series.

Don Bertschman: You co-founded Seeds of Hope in 9th grade, inspired by challenges you and your family faced after your step-dad returned from a third tour of duty in Afghanistan with PTSD. In an article about you in Northern Connection Magazine, you describe it this way:

“This was undoubtedly the worst point of my life, but the most pivotal point as well…. I was angry and upset at the situation I had been thrown into. I realized I could continue to be angry, or I could do something to change it…. It was my turn to step up and advocate for others like my step-dad.”

Talk about that “pivot” from being upset to wanting to improve the situation — for others. In a sense, that’s the heart of service and of community leadership, but many people have a hard time getting there.

Alexis Werner: Sure, it can be hard to see how you can change anything. That’s why I always emphasize that I’m not someone who had a lot of connections or money to get Seeds of Hope started. One of the best things you can learn, as a young person or at any age, is that if you have a passion for a cause, even if you don’t have a lot of resources, it’s still possible to make a difference.

I was also fortunate in having the Youth Advocacy League (YAL) at Shaler High School, which is run by Gregg Dietz, an outreach specialist at the University of Pittsburgh. That was the initial connection to Jefferson Awards and Students in Action as well. YAL includes a range of groups dealing with social justice, and Seeds grew out of that. YAL gave me something that a lot of high school kids don’t get not just exposure to social issues, but also learning how to approach and fix problems. Someone like Gregg can give students the toolbelt, and then they go and build the house.

DB: What inspired you to then want to produce a children’s book?

AW: Well, let me answer by telling you one of my favorite reactions to the book. After a reading, I always ask kids what they learned and if they have any questions. Once, this sweet little girl in 2nd or 3rd grade raised her hand and said: “I learned that one person can make a difference.”

Alexis Werner reading to K-3 children

Alexis Werner at one of the K-3 readings of her children’s book about volunteering, healthy eating, and appreciating veterans.

That’s an important learning! Reading the book to kids, I might be the first person to tell them what “volunteering” or “service” means. It’s an honor to be that person, and I always bring it back to asking themselves what they can do, and emphasizing that even small things make an impact. It’s important to tell kids that they have the power to create change in their lives, even if it’s just picking up garbage, or helping parents or grandparents. Once you have that concept, you can apply it in countless ways, and maybe someday you will start your own organization. But I hope the book, and the interactions at the readings, give kids that basic framework for volunteering and service that they can carry throughout their lives. 

DB: How did Highmark get involved in supporting the book?

AW: Highmark’s Mary Anne Papale (now Director of Community Affairs) was part of a ceremony at Shaler after Seeds of Hope won the Jefferson Awards Youth Service Challenge (now Lead360). We were talking, and she said, if you need anything give a call. So when we wanted to do this book, I called her. That was the first time I ever asked for a bigger donation like that. She and everyone at Highmark were very supportive. Not only did the company’s donation through Students in Action cover the costs of creating and distributing the book, Highmark also took care of the actual printing.

DB: You and your YAL partners have done readings for hundreds of K-3 kids and distributed nearly 1,000 copies of the book. Is there a future for the book now that you’ve graduated high school?

AW: Oh yes! We’ve created a second edition, retitled Beginning Hope to make it more open for everyone, not tied only to Seeds of Hope. We also made changes based on what we learned during readings about what kids responded to, what was too much, what we needed to explain better. We’re looking for donations now to do a high-quality print version and an online version for virtual readers.

DB: You’re also working on Our Way Home, a documentary in which you interview veterans from World War II to the present about their experiences, struggles and homecoming stories. Tell us what that’s been like.

AW: The film is my passion, and grew out of seeing the need for more open dialogue about PTSD, and for veterans to tell their stories. Going back to my experience again, I knew what I had dealt with in my step-dad’s PTSD, but until I interviewed him for the movie, I never got his side of the story in that deeper, more intense way.

I did two-hour interviews with each person, and our amazing film crew captured so much great material. I had people tell me stories on film that they hadn’t told anyone before. A vet who was at Dachau cried as he was telling his story, and said he’d never cried before. A woman who is 60 years old now told me about being raped on a military base decades ago and getting discharged because of what happened, and then not realizing until much later that the PTSD from this experience drove other behaviors and struggles throughout her life. But that realization understanding PTSD and addressing it helped her get her life together.

The stories from veterans are the heart of the film, but there’s also information on PTSD that makes it a resource for vets and their families. We’re going to try to take it to festivals, but we also see it as something to share with VA hospitals and other vet organizations. The film is in production now, and we hope to have a launch event in early 2015.

DB: You’ve been very involved with Jefferson Awards, Students in Action and Lead360, even becoming a kind of student spokesperson and appearing in promotional videos. What do you tell other young people to encourage them to get involved with these organizations?

AW: There’s lots to talk about there! One thing is that these organizations help you meet other students and build a larger sense of community. That’s an exciting aspect of events like the Students in Action conference that Highmark hosted. You learn what other students and groups are doing and that inspires you and your friends to come up with new ideas for what you can do in your community.

Mentoring, resources, encouragement, visibility it’s all invaluable. And then Jefferson Awards also connects you to larger opportunities and organizations like Highmark. In my case, that helped me publish a book, but I’m also thinking about that 2014 conference, and getting to see someone like Atiya Abdelmalik speak. She was amazing very inspiring. That’s the kind of “extra” experience you get by being part of Students in Action.