Alena O’Donnell (left) was a director of Dress for Success, an organization that is dedicated to empowering women by promoting economic independence and development tools. In Dec. 2016, Dress for Success put on a “Fiesta party” to collect money and clothing donations. They accumulated nearly $3,000 in donations to put towards professional clothing for women in need. “I fully believe that everyone should have access to the basic necessities of life,” O’Donnell said. (Sonja Mcgill)
Life after the Nuthouse
WHHS alum, Alena O’Donnell, shares how WHHS has shaped her life and what she's been up to since graduation.
WHHS students are constantly told that WHHS is special. But why? What about WHHS makes a lasting impact on all that enter it? One WHHS alumni, Alena O’Donnell, ‘88, reflects on these very questions and the impact WHHS has had on her life.
“[WHHS] really provided an unbelievable foundation, and I didn’t know that at the time,” O’Donnell said. “Sometimes you don’t recognize a good thing until after it’s gone or you experience something that’s not the same.”
O’Donnell elaborates, saying that the environment at WHHS is unlike many other high schools.
“You are not just expected to perform, but to be involved with your own learning. You have to interact, whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not, with people that are very different from you. You learn in that microcosm,” O’Donnell said.
The bonds students are able to make within WHHS are also special.
“Even at my age, the friends who have been with me through thick and thin, who are [my] ride or die, are my Walnut friends,” O’Donnell said.
While many people often end up being closer to their college or work friends, bonds made at WHHS often last past high school.
“I think innately we want to be safe. We crave, and we want connection, and with Walnut in particular, we are all connected. It’s not just the fact that we’ve got this diploma from the same high school. It’s the fact that there are things that are still there that have lasted the test of time,” O’Donnell said.
For O’Donnell, WHHS is her legacy because her mom attended in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but O’Donnell’s life did not begin in Cincinnati.
O’Donnell was born in Hawaii, where she lived in various orphanages and group homes throughout her early life.
“My first two families were just not great homes. [They were] abusive and just not very uplifting. As an only child, you rely on yourself,” O’Donnell said.
It was only through the service of others that O’Donnell was able to participate in activities such as seeing Santa for Christmas or visiting amusement parks.
Eventually, O’Donnell was adopted by a military family, but being adopted was not something she wanted at first.
“I didn’t want to have a family. I didn’t want to be adopted because I had been in enough homes. I thought, ‘No, thanks. I’m good.’ I just needed to get to 18,” O’Donnell said.
However, O’Donnell changed her mind after she met her future family. She was living in a group home where kids would often go to stay with different families over the weekend. But unlike the rest of the kids, O’Donnell refused to spend the night with her respective family, until her future adoptive mom called her out on it.
“The last time I asked her to take me home she said ‘Look, this will be the last time that I’ll pick you up because I don’t want you to do something that you don’t want to do. I’m really interested in you becoming a part of our family, but the choice will be yours,’” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell’s mom did not give up there.
“‘[She said] do you know what a role model is?’ And I was like, ‘Of course I don’t know.’ Then she said, ‘Well, as a parent, I will be your role model,’” O’Donnell said.
Looking back, O’Donnell considers her mom to be the person she looks up to the most.
“She is my true role model because, in the time that I was with her, she was true to her word. Everything she said that day. I had her until I was 28, and she kept her word,” O’Donnell said.
Although O’Donnell’s mom passed away, she still holds her mom deeply in her heart.
“It turned out after [meeting her], I would never spend the night at a group home. It’s funny, she was the mom that I needed,” O’Donnell said.
During lockdown, after years of searching, O’Donnell’s birth family found her.
“They’ve been searching for me all my life and they’re not letting me go. This family has been just one great big bear hug,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell visits her birth family in Hawaii from time to time, and from them, she has learned a lot about Hawaiian culture.
“There is something in the Hawaiian culture where you own what you are. So if you’re good, you own that. That doesn’t mean you have to be boastful, but you own that. You always put your best foot forward,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell treasures her opportunity to grow closer to her Hawaiian family.
“It’s been a pleasure to meet them. We’re family, and I’m beyond grateful,” O’Donnell said.
Throughout the twists and turns in O’Donnell’s life, one thing has remained constant: her love of dance.
“It was certainly a thread of continuity through those three homes,” O’Donnell said. “I just exhibited talent and other people took notice of that and encouraged my parents along the way to have me continue to dance.”
Before WHHS, O’Donnell attended SCPA until the ninth grade. Here she learned her love of performing and dancing. She was also on the drill team when she attended WHHS, and all through college, she was on the dance team at her college, Hofstra University.
“I love it. It just gives me joy, seeing others have joy in who they are and walking in their purpose,” O’Donnell said.
It was ultimately the praise from others that led O’Donnell to realize her gift for dance.
“Sometimes I think you have talents that other people recognize in us. I had the privilege and the blessing to have experts see and develop [my] talent,” O’Donnell said.
It took a three-year-long break from dance for O’Donnell to realize the impact the art has had on her life.
“It probably wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized that dance nourished my soul,” O’Donnell said.
Today, O’Donnell is still active in the performing arts as a teacher. She has been a dance instructor at Heather Britt Dance Collective for nearly nine years.
“It’s a vehicle that can make people happy, that can serve people, that can bring people together. It’s just another way of communication,” O’Donnell said.
The idea of bringing people together is a central part of who O’Donnell is. She first learned about the importance of community service through her adoptive mother, who grew up during the Great Depression.
“In the ‘20s and ‘30s, we were much more community-minded. If we were making dinner in the Depression, we would have community dinners, because you had to ration food. So that really was an outgrowth, and just a part of who I am,” O’Donnell said.
This dedication to community service was something O’Donnell discovered within herself when she was young.
“I found out my personal mission when I was a teenager, and I haven’t really deviated from it,” O’Donnell said. “I really believe that what I am meant to do on this earth is to help others and provide them with the tools and resources they need to get them to whatever it is that they have defined for themselves as success.”
O’Donnell firmly believes that, as a community, humans must rely on each other to build each other up.
“I believe in the concept of communities, between enterprise, government and citizens. I believe that there is a circular necessity to perpetuate our communities,” O’Donnell said.
Her mission to devote her life to others has also extended into her personal life.
“When I became a parent, that was my goal, to help another life understand they’re not alone in this world,” O’Donnell said.
Her participation in community service has taught O’Donnell a lot about the world around her.
“I’ve learned to have a lens of inclusion so that I can be more thoughtful, even when I didn’t think I needed to be more thoughtful,” O’Donnell said. “It’s the complexity behind how we contribute to others’ ability to see themselves in a place to choose what is going to be better for them.”
Her commitment to community service has translated to her jobs, from acting as a director for Dress for Success, where she assisted women in career advancement and job readiness, to her current job where she is responsible for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at Blue Alliance IT. O’Donnell offers advice to those who are just starting their journey in community service.
“If you have a talent, use that to bring comfort to folks,” O’Donnell said. “I think of community service, just as, ‘How can I be of service to others?’”
O’Donnell also expresses that she believes anyone can give back to their community, regardless of where they are starting from.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily about our station in life. I don’t think it is about where we’re from,” O’Donnell said. “You may not know who you are, but the concept of service can be a part of who you are. You can choose that. Look at service as a lifelong part of you.”
In many ways, O’Donnell accredits WHHS with where she is in her life now.
“All those experiences, all that training, all those clubs in high school and college have really led me throughout my career and to where I am now,” O’Donnell said.
Her dedication to community service, her love of dance, and her passion for the world were uncovered at WHHS and led her to have a successful career and a fulfilling life.
“Why is it that we have this love for Walnut? I really believe that we humans crave connection and we can be connected when we’re serving each other through community,” O’Donnell said.
Donate to The Chatterbox
Your donation will support the student journalists of Walnut Hills High School. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, cover our annual website hosting, printing costs and offset competition and conferences fees for students.