By Bryan Boggiano
On Feb. 14, 2018, Alexa Kitaygorodsky went to school like it was any other day.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School freshman went to her first three classes, noting that nothing eventful happened.
But for Alexa, her life as she knew it changed during her fourth period and last class of the day: Spanish. That classroom was the first in the 1200 Building.
She had just gotten back from the bathroom when no more than five seconds later, she heard loud popping sounds followed by screaming for help and crying from the hallway and the fire alarm blaring.
Everybody in her classroom took cover, caught in the crosshairs of what would become one of the deadliest school shootings in United States history.
After what felt like hours, Alexa said the SWAT team finally broke into her classroom, freeing her classmates and her teacher.
The sounds of students screaming for help and gunfire were only the beginning of a traumatic journey for her.
The sights that she faced evacuating the building stay etched into her mind: broken glass, blood across the floor, and dead bodies, including three right outside of her classroom.
“It was out of a horror movie,” she said. “It was really the most horrifying experience of my life.”
Alexa had just moved from New York that 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 house open for anybody who was grieving, traumatized, or hurt, to express themselves and reflect on what they experienced.
Lori stated that between 30 and 40 kids would visit. Although she did not know who most of them were, the fact that they were together and talking about what they went through 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, it was the beginning of her journey to healing trauma through storytelling.
About one month after the shooting, she reached out to the organization Make Our Schools Safe, and by working with them, she spoke to schools throughout New York and Florida about what to do during code reds and her story.
Although she can share her story now, it did not start that way for her. The first few schools she spoke at, she would feel scared and start to cry, struggling to make it through her speech.
To help calm her fears of public speaking, Alexa would imagine that nobody was in the audience.
As time went on, Alexa was able to finish her speaking events. 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 to talk about [my experience], it was less emotional,” she said. “Talking about it is one of the best things I could do because [school shootings] are so common today.”
She also hopes that speaking about her experience inspires others to work to break the stigma surrounding trauma.
“You just don’t think about and understand it until you go through it,” she said. “If you’re not hearing about this from someone who went through [something like I did], it isn’t as impactful.”
Through the process, Alexa said that she learned a lot about herself and grew as a person and hopes to continue her work since there is a lot of progress left to be made.
As a marketing sophomore at the University of Florida, Alexa continues to use her voice in Gainesville to promote collective healing.
She regularly keeps in touch with her friends from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and she makes sure that the memory of the 17 victims remains alive.
When Alexa could not find any event to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the shooting, she organized a memorial at a park near campus, where roughly 60 people attended.
“I’m definitely proud of her for finding her voice, and I think it’s definitely been a good factor in her healing practice, talking about what she has gone through,” Lori said.
Now, Alexa is preparing for what she describes as her largest speaking event yet.
On Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m., Alexa will participate in an event organized 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 be sharing her experience in the spoken-word format.
Lori said that the event organizers reached out to her since they knew that Alexa previously spoke at high schools across Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Alexa agreed to participate, knowing that she had a story to tell and a difference to make.
“It’s a beautiful thing being able to tell your story and [see that] people are engaged and asking questions [about your experience],” she said.
For people who have gone through trauma in their lives, Alexa hopes to be a source of inspiration for others to tell their stories and leave a lasting impact on their lives.
“Once you are comfortable, it is so important to talk about what you are going through,” she said. “Even if you help just one person, you are still impactful.”
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- A University of Florida journalism graduate, Bryan plans to pursue geosciences at Florida International University for his master's. He has a strong interest in weather, entertainment, and journalism.
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