Alex Ross figured he was doing pretty well right up until his sophomore year in high school.
He had a great family, grew up in an affluent neighborhood, had a girlfriend and played every sport imaginable.
“I had a picture-perfect life,” he said.
But his life took a dark turn, and the graduating Kansas University senior said it was a little girl with a big smile in a pink tutu that helped save his life.
Ross said he was sexually abused his sophomore year and soon went into a deep depression. He initially hid the abuse from his family and friends, and several times he contemplated suicide and came close to going through with it.
“I thought that nobody loved me,” he said. “That nobody wanted me.”
His family eventually hospitalized him.
“I hated them at the moment, of course,” he said. “But if they hadn’t done it, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Still, he rebelled. Started hanging out with the wrong crowd. Got arrested. Began disagreeing with his parents on nearly everything.
“I was an idiot,” he said.
His life turned around after his sister invited him to a “Dance Marathon” at Vanderbilt University.
It turns out there’s not all that much dancing at a Dance Marathon event. It’s primarily geared toward children who are benefitted by the Children’s Miracle Network, an organization that helps children with debilitating diseases, birth defects, afflictions or handicaps.
There are games, food, prizes and children from the participating hospitals who enjoy spending time with college kids.
He remembered seeing that girl with the tutu singing on stage. She got done and everyone clapped while the girl beamed.
“This is the very moment that changed my life,” he said.
He decided to pour everything he had into starting up something similar at KU.
Ross already knew he was attending the school. A friend was coming along with him, and Ross loved the Jayhawk. “It’s a great logo,” he said.
He told his parents about his plans at the Vanderbilt event. They laughed at him. He was less than pleased.
But he began to work to realize his goal, calling people in charge of registering new student groups before he even set foot on campus. His first year, he worked hard (about 10 hours a day, he estimated), and was able to donate about $20,000 to the Children’s Miracle Network.
“My goal was a million,” he said.
Ross said he was a real jerk (he used another word) his first year, and spent too much time micromanaging. He spent the summer backpacking in Europe and reading leadership books. Think “The Tipping Point” and “Five Dysfunctions of a Team.”
Colleen Drazen served as the staff adviser to KU Dance Marathon before moving to St. Louis University. She said Ross’ charisma helped attract several people to the cause.
“Almost everybody who was involved with Dance Marathon would say it was because Alex Ross asked me to,” Drazen said.
She said he really connected with the children at the event.
“I think the kids especially give him hope that whatever he’s going through, it can get better,” Drazen said.
His sophomore year, he devoted even more time to the cause. About 12 hours a day, he said.
“I didn’t really go to class,” he said. “If the class required attendance, I went. Otherwise, I didn’t.”
His grades predictably suffered. After that, Ross scaled back his involvement.
But they raised $37,000 the second year. By the end of this year, the organization will have donated more than $150,000 to Children’s Miracle Network and raised an additional $50,000 for an endowed fund that will permanently support the organization on campus.
After he graduates, Ross said he hopes to make a difference on all seven continents of the world. He’ll start in Africa for four months working with a nonprofit organization, and then it’s on to southeast Asia.
He said he’ll have to tell his mother that, though, before she reads it in the newspaper.
And he traces it all back to the girl with the tutu and the great smile.
“It reminded me that there are people in this world with far greater needs than I had,” he said.