By Bryan Boggiano
On February 14, 2018, Alexa Kitaygorodsky went to school like it was any other day.
High school freshman Marjory Stoneman Douglas went to her first three classes, noting that nothing eventful had happened.
But for Alexa, her life as she knew it changed during her fourth period and final lesson of the day: Spanish. This classroom was the first in building 1200.
She had just returned from the bathroom when no more than five seconds later she heard loud popping sounds followed by screams for help and crying in the hallway and the fire alarm sounded.
Everyone in her class took cover, caught in the crosshairs of what would become one of the deadliest school shootings in US history.
After what felt like hours, Alexa said the SWAT team finally broke into her classroom, freeing her classmates and teacher.
The sounds of students screaming for help and gunshots were just the beginning of a traumatic journey for her.
The images she faced as she evacuated the building remain etched in her mind: broken glass, blood on the floor and corpses, including three just outside her classroom.
“It was straight out of a horror movie,” she said. “It was truly the most horrifying experience of my life.”
Alexa had just moved from New York in September. She was struggling to make friends in a new place surrounded by complete strangers.
In the days following the shooting, her mother, Lori, kept the door to their home open for anyone who was grieving, traumatized or injured to speak up and reflect on what they had been through.
Lori said between 30 and 40 children would visit. Although she doesn’t know who most of them were, having them together and talking about what they’ve been through has helped them, and especially her daughter, immensely.
“Being around people who were there was probably what got me through [that time] the most,” Alexa said.
For Alexa, this was the start of her journey to healing trauma through storytelling.
About a month after the shooting, she contacted the Make Our Schools Safe organization and, working with them, spoke to schools in New York and Florida about what to do during codes red and her story. .
While she can share her story now, it didn’t start out that way for her. The first schools where she spoke, she felt scared and started crying, struggling to keep her speech.
To help calm her fears of public speaking, Alexa imagined that no one was in the audience.
Over time, Alexa was able to complete her lectures. She also felt more empowered after her engagements and has since spoken at more than 12 schools through live appearances and Zoom calls.
“For me, talking about [my experience], it was less emotional,” she said. “Talking about it is one of the best things I can do because [school shootings] are so common today.
She also hopes that talking about her experience will inspire others to work to break the stigma around trauma.
“You don’t think about it and understand it until you’ve gone through it,” she said. “If you don’t hear about this from someone who’s been through [something like I did]it’s not as punchy.
During the process, Alexa said she learned a lot about herself and grew as a person and hoped to continue her work as there was still a lot of progress to be made.
A sophomore in marketing at the University of Florida, Alexa continues to use her voice in Gainesville to promote collective healing.
She stays in regular contact with her friends at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and she makes sure the memory of the 17 victims lives on.
When Alexa couldn’t find any events to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the shooting, she held a memorial in a park near campus, where about 60 people attended.
“I’m definitely proud of her for finding her voice, and I think that’s definitely been a good factor in her healing practice, talking about what she’s been through,” Lori said.
Now Alexa is gearing up for what she describes as her biggest event yet.
On Thursday, September 22 at 7 p.m., Alexa will participate in an event hosted by This is My Brave at the Coral Springs Center for the Performing Arts.
Alexa will be one of 11 panelists and the youngest, sharing their stories of mental illness and trauma through the performing arts.
Individuals can tell their stories through poetry, music or spoken word performances. Alexa will share her experience in the spoken format.
Lori said event organizers contacted her because they knew Alexa had previously spoken at high schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Alexa agreed to participate, knowing she had a story to tell and a difference to make.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to tell your story and [see that] people are engaged and asking questions [about your experience],” she says.
For people who have experienced trauma in their lives, Alexa hopes to inspire others to tell their story and leave a lasting impact on their lives.
“OOnce you’re comfortable, it’s so important to talk about what you’re going through,” she said. “Even if you help just one person, you still have an impact.”
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A journalism graduate from the University of Florida, Bryan plans to study geoscience at Florida International University for his master’s degree. He has a strong interest in weather, entertainment and journalism.