Tori Russo

IMG_1778I attended both WLC in 2011 and the Inaugural ALA in February of 2013. I also sang at the HOBY Gala in 2013.

To answer “how has HOBY changed me,” I honestly could go on for many many pages about this, but I will do my best to keep it as short as possible. I’ve always known my whole life that I was going to make a difference in the world. I’ve always been the smartest in my class, the first to finish tests or quizzes, always waiting on everyone else to catch up. I’ve always had this step ahead, and I knew I had to do something big with it. I kind of knew what I wanted to do with my life, but didn’t really know how to put it into words. I had a really, really rough freshman year of high school. Before high school, I was one those “popular” girls. I was friends with everyone; not just the other popular kids, but the sporty kids, and the smart kids, and the weird kids, and the theater kids, and literally everyone.

Then, comes HOBY. I remember sitting in front of the University of Bridgeport in the car with my dad trying to convince him not to make me go, because I didn’t want to face another situation that would make me be alone without making any friends. He said to me, “Well, we already paid for it. You might as well try. I will come get you if you want me to tomorrow morning.” So I went, and was startled at first, as everyone always is, and within the first five minutes I met people who would become, eventually, some of the most important and precious friends I would ever make. My dad very easily could’ve agreed to take me home for the weekend, and I wouldn’t have had this amazing opportunity. I think about that all the time. So as the weekend went on I obviously fell in love with HOBY. I convinced my parents to send me to WLC and it was the most amazing week of my life. My group and I are still such close friends. Most of us went to ALA together eventually too. We’ve all stayed in touch, all 13 of us, and I’ve visited them all plenty of times. Everyone came to bring in 2012 with my in CT on News Years Eve that year too! My HOBY family is the most incredible part of my life. HOBY changed me because it gave me a new start, and showed me that good people MY AGE actually exist in this world and that I would never be alone again. After HOBY, almost all of my depression was over. I still deal with things now and then, but probably only slightly more than the average person would.

Not only did HOBY give me my life back, but HOBY gave me a direction to go in. It happened through all three levels I experienced as an ambassador, and each time I go back as a volunteer it just reminds me how much of an impact this organization really had on my life. I will start with CT HOBY. As I mentioned before, in my sophomore year of high school I kind of, a little bit, knew what I wanted to do with my life, but I had never really given it words. I had a small idea. The way CT HOBY inspired me that I was ENOUGH and that I was WORTH doing or being whatever I wanted to do to change the world, set me into focus. That’s when I really figured out my life plan. My baby brother, Nicholas, is my favorite person in the whole world, and he has autism. I have a huge passion for dolphins, and a huge passion for helping him get better. So, I “officially” made it up in my head, that I was going to create a therapy for people with autism to interact with dolphins, because autism is just a series of social disorders and dolphins are the most social mammals on the planet, so I believe, somehow, a connection can be made there. No one’s tried it before, and I intend to be the one to do it.

IMG_2824But this was still just in my head. I never shared that with anyone, because let’s face it, no one my age in my life at the time besides HOBY people would’ve cared, and I was still a little iffy about it. When I went to WLC, I connected with my group so deeply, so very quickly. I’ve shared things with them that I’ve never even told my mother, and we talk about EVERYTHING. They became my very best friends. Even now, if I ever needed any of them, they’d be on a plane headed towards CT in a moment. That’s a fact. As I would do the same for every single one of them. Through what we learned, and the experiences we shared, I was able to tell them my plan, and form a complete sentence about it, and have a real coherent goal. It wasn’t a stupid idea, as they made sure to tell me over and over, even though I thought it was a little bit crazy. Being at WLC gave me way more confidence in myself and in my future and in our generation than I ever had before.

Two years later, HOBY remained one of the most important parts of my life, and as soon as I learned about ALA, I got my spot. There was NO WAY I’d be missing out on that one. Not only was it a chance to see my WLC friends again, it was a chance to be an ambassador all over again and have a new HOBY experience. It was basically Heaven for me. ALA turned oIMG_2813ut to be so different than anything I had expected from HOBY or anything I’d experienced with them before. It was so much more structured, and goal oriented, and focused than ever before. It was incredible. One of the coolest things to me, now looking back, is that in my Leadership Studied Minor at the University of Rhode Island, a lot of the course work is from the same book ALA gave me, “Leadership for a Better World”. It’s all about the Social Change Theory. It’s fantastic. Through the project that I created during ALA, I learned skills that I know I will definitely have to use again when I’m trying for the first time ever in the history of the world to use dolphins to heal autism.

In February of my senior year of high school, I planned a Walk-A-Thon event for people who suffer from depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or anything related to those, at ALA. I imagined it being similar to a “Relay for Life” event, but supporting different kinds of people. People would come as teams and keep walking along the track for 24 hours while the whole time other fun events would also be taking place. I wanted to donate all the proceeds to a charity that helps these people. I had suggested “To Write Love on Her Arms” at the time, but I never really looked into the best organization for that. The best part of it would be that therapy services would be provided for the entire 24 hours, and it would be appealing because whether or not you personally were suffering and attending the event, everyone there would be a support system of some sort, and no matter what, you’d come out with a friend who understands, at least a little bit, of your situation. I never went through with this event, however, and I truly wish I could have. I made all the plans, and I believe I could have been successful with it if I had had the time to do so. But, it was almost the end of high school, and college started that fall. The most important immediate goal in my life at that point was preparing to start over in a positive way, and that’s exactly what I did at URI. I believe, if I had attended ALA my junior year of high school instead, this program definitely would’ve see real life.

In as short a statement I can make, HOBY changed my life. CT HOBY told me that I could change the world. WLC HOBY made me truly believe that I could change the world. ALA HOBY taught me skills on how to go about doing it. Future ambassadors should attend WLC and ALA because they enrich your soul exponentially, compared to the amazing-ness that their local HOBY already did. It’s the complete package, and not taking the opportunity to attend these programs is the saddest thing I could ever think of.