SMITHS STATION, Ala. (WRBL) —In the midst of grief, one Alabama mother has turned her pain into purpose. February marks three years since Smiths Station high-schooler Lexi Webb was laid to rest. Now, the organization named in her honor is making a lasting impact on area high schools.
Lexi Webb was a softball star, student class president and a pillar in the Smiths Station Community. But in February 2019, the girl with the contagious smile tragically lost her life to suicide.
As the community mourned the loss of Lexi, what they remembered most was the way she loved others — thus, the “Love Like Lexi” project was born. The organization shares Lexi’s story at school assemblies and teaches a curriculum that works to instill hope, self-worth and purpose in students.
Andrea Mills, Lexi’s mother and founder of the organization, says Lexi’s story speaks to students who may be struggling in silence.
“The healing comes when I see others make a different decision. A decision that I know she would’ve made If she would’ve known that she could. But she didn’t know and we never had those conversations because I didn’t know I needed to.”ANDREA MILLS, LEXI’S MOTHER, FOUNDER OF LOVE LIKE LEXI
Mills never imagined she would be doing this. But after Lexi’s death, she looked for answers as she processed her shock. She interviewed people, talked to teachers and counselors — she wanted to figure out what happened and why it happened. As she researched suicide and tried to understand what Lexi was going through, she shared that information with the people around her.
“It brought them some peace and some healing as well including myself and my family but when the 5th suicide had happened at Smiths Station… I knew it was time for me to speak up.”ANDREA MILLS, LEXI’S MOTHER, FOUNDER OF LOVE LIKE LEXI
Something had to be done. Mills built what she had learned into a curriculum. The first assembly for the “Love Like Lexi Project” was at Glenwood High School.
“But a lot of those kids knew her and a lot of the faculty there knew her and if they didn’t, they knew someone that did. And they were really affected by her death. And so to be in a school where they just receive you and your team and the message so openly… it was incredible.”ANDREA MILLS, LEXI’S MOTHER, FOUNDER OF LOVE LIKE LEXI
At each assembly, Lexi’s story is told. The story of a normal girl who, on the outside, seemed to be okay. She had friends, dreams, and passions. In that way, she represents every student.
Behind the big smile was a girl who was struggling.
“You see kids slowly start to lean their head on another child. You see kids turn around and kind of nod or look at somebody. You see kids mouth “are you okay?” They almost immediately check in with each other. Which I think is really great.”Torrey Blair, Volunteer Love Like Lexi Project
For many students, the message hits especially hard. The assembly is a way for them to admit that they need help.
“It’s been beyond eye opening. Priceless. Just this morning I hugged two girls who were bawling because they needed help. You can’t describe that, there’s no feeling like that.”Michelle Smith, Volunteer Love Like Lexi Project
After the success at Glenwood, the project took off. As the Love Like Lexi message spread to schools across Alabama and Georgia, one thing was clear… It was a message students needed to hear.
The Love Like Lexi Project isn’t only about suicide prevention. It’s about giving students the tools they need to face and navigate through life’s challenges… tools Mills wishes she could have shared with her daughter.
“I feel like honestly I’ve been entrusted with this information and that I feel the responsibility to tell other people because if I had sat in on an assembly, I really believe our family story would be different.”ANDREA MILLS, LEXI’S MOTHER, FOUNDER OF LOVE LIKE LEXI
At the end of the assemblies, students sign a banner. That signature marks a decision… a decision to choose life.
“When they get up there and they stand up and they walk up to that banner to sign their name because they’re choosing to live… I think that really really connects with them because we see a lot of emotion at those banners.”Michelle Smith, Volunteer Love Like Lexi Project
Standing by those banners is a team of volunteers. They are there to provide hugs, words of affirmation or silence to those who need it —volunteers like Vicki Pippins who have experienced the heartbreak of suicide firsthand.
“She was my first grandchild, her name is Kirsten Larson and my heart obviously, she was my first grandchild. My granddaughter committed suicide on October 3, 2020. And after that I needed a way to deal with my grief also. Andrea and I started speaking, sending text messages and I told her I want to help. I felt like it would help me with my grief.”Vicky Pippins, Volunteer, Love Like Lexi
According to the CDC, emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts rose in adolescents, particularly among girls, during the pandemic. In the U.S., suicide is the 10th leading cause of death.
“Everybody I really think knows somebody or knows of somebody who has lost their life to suicide. So I really think its connecting other students to realize they’re not the only one and that everyone is going through something even if it’s not suicide and connect through that way.”Taylor Verbowski, Volunteer, Love Like Lexi, Lexi’s best friend
Following the assembly, volunteers witness a change in the students. A bully apologizing to the bullied. Two friends making amends. A hand extended toward a stranger. The students feel validated. They realize they aren’t the only ones struggling.
Andrea Mills may no longer have her daughter with her, but Lexi’s legacy lives on through each student the project impacts. Though Lexi lost her battle, her story encourages others to keep fighting. More than anything, the world is made a little brighter… as others learn to “Love Like Lexi.”