If you visit junior Alexis Sell at Crossroads High School, you’ll likely find her helping a fellow student, packing care bags for people in need or organizing her report as a Board of Education student representative.
But just two years ago, the articulate, talented girl was floundering, troubled by situations in her family life, mental-health issues and homelessness.
Alexis quit school her freshman year after leaving Kelloggsville Public Schools and enrolling in a virtual high school program. The formerly straight-A student who had a passion for band stopped completing classes, fell behind on credits and her GPA dipped to below a 2.0.
“There was just too much going on at home for me to put the focus and motivation into school,” she said.
Alexis, 16, had a rocky relationship with her mother, which led to conflicts between the two, she said. But there had been structure that disappeared after they separated.
“My mom made sure my homework was done,” she said. “She made sure my grades were good. She went to parent-teacher conferences. That part was good. It was just the communicating part that wasn’t.”
Alexis’ father didn’t have stable housing, she said, so she was soon living with friends. “I took my own route for awhile.” Now, she rents a room in the basement of the house where her dad lives.
“I needed to go back to public school and do the whole standard school-everyday thing, waking up in the morning and having a routine,” she said.
Alexis enrolled at Crossroads, an alternative program, during the final third of her freshman year. “I had no credits coming here except the ones I had earned in middle school from being in advanced classes.”
She found direction after receiving A’s the first two classes she took. “That’s what made me realize, ‘You need to get it together.’ I came back here my sophomore year super behind, and it made me realize, ‘You don’t get another chance after this.'”
So she decided to embrace it. “With my past grades, I’ve always had everyone telling me, ‘You can grow up and you can do anything you want to do,’ and I don’t want to see it go to waste.”
Another thing that helped Alexis was proper medication and therapy for attention deficit disorder, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. In previous years, she had been on medication that didn’t work well for her. At one point, she spent 14 days at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.
“My anger was getting out of control. I was depressed. I didn’t want to get out of my room… I was sick and tired of everything going on.”
Learning to Lead
At Crossroads, teacher Janet Sallinvited Alexis to join the Student Leadership Team, where Alexis discovered a love for giving back. “I have a lot of fun in there. That class has helped me build the most character than any other class. We do so much in there. There are so many things to be motivated about.”
Alexis has led the Care Bag project, which each year provides more than 300 bags filled with personal hygiene items for those in need, including The Bridge.
At the Bridge, a program for runaway and homeless youth, Alexis felt a strong connection. “I had to go to the Bridge once,” she said. “It was definitely a nice thing to realize that I was once in the same position as one of those kids sitting on the couch, and I thought, they’re going to get one of these bags I put together and they’re going to feel better.”
She also helps with Literacy for Life, an annual program for which Crossroads students collect more than 600 books to donate to Kentwood elementary students. They visit and read to kindergarten through second-graders, and donate toward literacy materials. They also paint and donate chairs to the classrooms.
Alexis painted Dr. Seuss characters and quotes on the chairs.
“These little kids look up to me,” she said, recalling a child who was so excited about the Dr. Seuss book “Wacky Wednesday” that he created his own story. “It made my whole day,” she recalled. “That kid went home and he remembered me. That was the coolest thing. I made an impact on him, and I knew I did.”
Awards and Ambitions
Alexis’ grade-point average is now 3.85. She’s developed bonds with teachers and students, she said, and hopes to attend Aquinas College and ultimately become a prosecuting attorney at the state or federal level.
She was awarded the YWCA Judge Robert Benson Achievement Award, including a $500 scholarship, during the YWCA Tribute Award ceremony in November. She also received the Social Studies Student of the Year Award and Excellence in Attendance Award. Other accolades are Rotary Student of the Month, and she serves as student representative for the Kentwood Public Schools Board of Education.
Alexis says the sky is the limit. “I want to do something big.”
Teacher Janet Sall, who nominated Alexis for the YWCA award, expects nothing less.
“Alexis put in all that additional effort to be successful despite all the obstacles that stood in her way,” Sall said. “She has determination, and she tries to mentor and foster other kids to go in that same positive direction. She always does so with excellence.”
Truly a ‘Crossroads’ for Her
Alexis credits Crossroads for giving her the strength to turn things around. She said she no longer worries about what will happen next. “Here, I have people around me who know when I’m not OK, and if I’m not OK, they make sure I am. It’s the environment. The people here make sure I have what I need.”
“The parent support in my life has definitely been absent. That’s the one thing I’ve had a hard time with: having the safety net I needed. I haven’t had time to feel like a kid because I worry so much. Here, I can focus on school. I feel like I’m actually 16 and not 25, having to worry about bills all day”.
Despite her struggles, Alexis always had a strong sense of identity, she said. She came out as gay in sixth grade. Her mother supported her, she said.
“Honestly, without that, I don’t know how I could have come so far being this comfortable with it… I give her props for being there for me.”
While Crossroads has been a great place for Alexis, her journey hasn’t been without pain. Her best friend, Zachary Gray, died Oct. 24, 2014 after being hit by a pickup truck while crossing the street.
Dean of Students Ian Gibson said he will always remember Alexis’ reaction. She told him, “I’ll do this for Zach.”
“Since that day, Alexis has been grinding in the books every second available, and she never quits,” Gibson said. “She doesn’t just talk the game. She just does it. She leads by example, she doesn’t brag or just give you the lip service. She just does it consistently every day, every class, 100 percent of the time. Alexis just does it.”