A sophomore from Temple University’s Fox School of Business has been chosen as a finalist for a national peace prize for her outstanding volunteer service to military veterans.
Entrepreneurship major Alexis Werner is vying for the Peace First Prize, a national award that recognizes youths between the ages of 8 and 22 for their “compassion, courage, and ability to create collaborative change” in their communities. Of the 27 finalists, only five will be chosen as recipients of a $25,000, two-year fellowship that acts as Peace First’s investment in that young person’s future to create change.
The 2015 Peace First Prize winners will be announced in Fall 2015.
Werner’s social justice work began in 2011 with her founding of Seeds of Hope, which provides fresh-grown produce to veterans and their families. Then a student at Shaler Area High School, in Glenshaw, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, Werner credits her stepfather, Gregory Zottola, as her inspiration. He had returned from active duty in Afghanistan with the United States Army in 2011 suffering with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“He had just married my mom (Nicole), who’s a veteran, too, but she never saw active combat. So it was a different transition,” Werner said. “You see someone in your life struggling to cope and, as a 15-year-old girl, it was difficult dealing with such real-world issues. I felt helpless.”
Following consultation with a guidance counselor, Werner started planting gardens in her community. Contributions from a local grocery store chain fetched fruits and vegetables to be donated to veterans. A friend’s father, who owns a greenhouse, donated soil and land, and taught Werner and other area high school students how to tend to the produce.
In its first year, Seeds of Hope used its “victory gardens” to generate more than 1,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables. Since, Seeds of Hope has gardens in eight states, and Werner plans for her organization to support veterans and their families nationwide.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD, and one in seven veterans is homeless.
The goal of Seeds of Hope is to curb the cycle of mental illness and poverty within the military veteran population. The gardens were the first step, Werner said. She’s also written and published a children’s book, “Beginning Hope,” on the importance of proper nutrition, volunteering, and veteran appreciation. Werner’s documentary, titled “Our Way Home,” will be screened Nov. 12, the day after Veterans Day, in Pittsburgh for more than 1,500 high school and college students, followed by a discussion panel.
“The message is clear: It’s never too late for veterans to get help,” Werner said. “The documentary will be good for people to see, almost acting as a call to action for businesses to hire veterans to help their transition after their service.”“What is inspiring about Alexis is that she has taken a difficult and highly personal situation with her stepfather and his PTSD, and has used that experience to develop a documentary film to help others understand what veterans go through,” said Debbie Campbell, Assistant Dean at the Fox School of Business, and Faculty Advisor to Temple University’s Veteran Association. “She is succeeding in making a real difference through her Seeds of Hope program that was started in high school, and now with this film. She is also excelling academically as a Fox School student, which is amazing considering her class load and everything that she has going on in her life.”
Werner hopes to add the Peace First Prize to an already-decorated resume. In 2014, the Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum honored her with the Young Hero Award. Werner also has received the 2014 Prudential Financial Spirit of Community Award; the 2013 Princeton Prize in Race Relations; and the 2013 Globechanger Youth Service Award, from New York City’s Robin Hood Foundation. And she recently delivered a talk at the TEDxPittsburgh Youth event.