Alexa Russell, 17, of Pryor, Oklahoma, a member of Northeast Oklahoma-American Red Cross and a senior at Pryor High School, created a school-based program designed to help middle and high school students overcome personal tragedies and challenges by showing them they’re not alone. After her little brother died, Alexa says she “spent a year of my life pretending to have it all together, hiding my feelings and my grief from everyone around me.” But when she finally decided to open up and “begin living authentically, others began sharing their own hearts with me as well,” she said. That gave her strength and deeper friendships, and prompted her to give others the benefit of her experience through a program she named “Hearts Wide Open” (HWO).
To implement her program, Alexa developed a curriculum that’s adaptable to any middle or high school. It starts by making a video featuring students willing to share their personal stories about grief, addiction, depression, divorce, bullying or other trauma. After the video is shown to the student body, the entire school gathers for an assembly to engage in team-building games, listen to motivational speakers and participate in group activities that demonstrate how to cope with life’s tragedies in positive ways and how to help others who need support. Alexa’s program has now expanded to three school districts. By encouraging students to speak out about their problems, and showing them that others have had similar experiences, HWO is helping to heal pain and even save lives, said Alexa. “No student is ever alone,” she said. “There is always someone who understands.”