Two students earn awards from YWCA

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Alexis Werner, a junior at Shaler Area High School, and Michael Sutton, a freshman at Duke University who graduated this year from Sewickley Academy, have been honored as winners of Racial Justice Awards by the YWCA of Pittsburgh.

Alexis knows first-hand about how devastating post traumatic stress disorder can be for veterans. Her stepfather, Gregg Zottola, is a veteran and suffers from it.

She wants others to know and understand the plight of veterans and the fact that many have difficulty readjusting to life as a civilian. To raise awareness about veterans and to assist those struggling economically, Alexis resorted to an old, World War II tradition, Victory Gardens.

"I learned about them in history class and thought it would be a good idea to start our own," she said.

Alexis, 17, was honored in the student category for her "Seeds of Hope," a student-led initiative.

When she was a freshman, she started Seeds of Hope. The group uses seeds donated by Burpee and plants them on land Bartsch Greenhouses in Shaler has donated. They also have a garden at a private residence and a veteran's home where the residents tend the garden.

"I don't have a green thumb whatsoever -- It's kind of embarrassing. But I can get everyone there to plant things and they can grow them," Alexis joked.

The produce harvested from the gardens is donated to veterans. The gardens also raise awareness about the veterans through the coverage the group has received from the media.

She was nominated by her mentor, Greg Dietz, a Shaler Area High School teacher.

"Alexis is an amazing young woman. She is mature beyond her years and has already made changes through her work," he said.

Alexis has also raised $16,000 through a Groupon program for her project and was honored as a Change Agent by the Jefferson Organization. Seeds of Hope has already spread to 11 other cities in 10 states.

Alexis' mother, Nicole Zottola, still serves in the military. Alexis lives with her father, Shawn Werner in Etna.

Co-winner Michael, 18, was nominated for the award by Jeremiah Jackson, director of diversity at Sewickley Academy.

"Michael worked very hard with our overall goal to raise awareness of our students and our community about other cultures. I watched him grow as a leader and felt he was very deserving of such an honor," he said.

Michael, whose home is in Aliquippa, said when he transferred to Sewickley Academy in seventh grade, he realized how students tended to interact with those from the same cultural backgrounds.

"I thought our school reflected our society and I wanted to expand the understanding of cultures," he said.

Michael founded Students Advocating for Equity, a group that promotes equity for all and was the founder of the first Stand Against Racism day. He also helped to expand the international dinner the school hosts every year.

Michael is the son of Tanya and Joe Sutton.

The awardees are chosen based on their contribution to their communities to increase cultural awareness, according to Magdeline Jensen, CEO of the YWCA of Pittsburgh.

For more school news and a list of North community events and activities, go to

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Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:


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