Reaping What She Sows

May 11, 2016 //

For Fox School junior Alexis Werner, social justice and support of veterans collide through her program Seeds of Hope.

Fox Focus Spring 2016 Student ProfileAlexis Werner

Age: 20

Hometown: Pittsburgh

Fun Fact: While receiving the 2014 Prudential Financial Spirit of Community Award, she met Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker. Alexis also has served as a featured speaker at TEDxPittsburgh Youth.

Alexis Werner has found a perfect balance in her ability to meld social justice and schoolwork.

Alexis Werner has found a perfect balance in her ability to meld social justice and schoolwork.

Last autumn, the Entrepreneurship major won the Pennsylvania Council of Social Studies Future Leader Award through the Pennsylvania Bar Association, for her work with Seeds of Hope, which provides fresh-grown produce to veterans and their fam- ilies. She also was a finalist 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.

Werner founded Seeds of Hope in 2011, when she was a student at Shaler Area High School, in Glenshaw, Pa. She credits her stepfather, Gregory Zottola, as her inspiration. Zottola 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 transi- tion,” 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 now 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 pub- lished a children’s book, “Beginning Hope,” on the importance of proper nutrition, volunteering, and veteran appreciation.

Around Veterans Day, Werner screened her documentary, titled “Our Way Home,” for an audience of 200 in Pittsburgh. (For upcoming  screenings,  visit OurWayHomeForVets.org.)

“The message is clear: It’s never too late for veterans to get help,” said Werner, a rising junior. “The documentary almost acts 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, and now with this film. She is also excelling aca- demically as a Fox School student, which is amazing considering her class load and everything that she has going on in her life.”