Jennifer Alexander: Empowered to Be a Changemaker
by Amber Jurgensen
Through life, there are a lot of things that can tear a person down.
Heavy things, like decades-long family feuds or racial inequality.
Silly, but ever-infuriating things, like internet trolls or the neighbor’s barking dogs.
And, perhaps most painful, things out of our control, like terminal illness or the past.
For Jennifer Alexander, a Human Resource Manager at the Jackson, TN mill, there have been many things in her life that could have torn her down and made her give up on the world.
For one, her mother’s death when Alexander was 16.
The many moves she made, as an Air Force brat, from Japan to Turkey, Maine to Southern California.
Her husband’s stroke at 41, and her father’s three strokes on Christmas Eve in 2020.
Instead, the opposite happened. Alexander has opened – not closed – herself to the world. She volunteers building giant sculptures out of canned goods for the local food bank. She helped build a closet at a collection site that provides coats and other supplies for children in need. And, she has just been named a Woman of Impact by the American Heart Association for her efforts with Heart Walk, Go Red for Women, and beyond.
Alexander’s unwavering acts of kindness are inspired by her mother’s death – a devastating life event that could have turned any pure heart dark. But not Alexander’s.
“She taught me no matter what circumstances you’re in, you can still find a way to do good and give back,” Alexander says over the phone from inside her warm home, which has just had an unusual amount of snow dumped on it from freak polar vortex storms that blanketed the U.S. as far south as Texas.
Alexander’s mother had been HIV positive. It was her mother’s work as a counselor that propelled her to use her last moments on Earth to make change. She was one of the first women in Southern California to publicly seek treatment for HIV, and she worked to get resources and support for other women battling HIV.
“There were no resources at all for women back then,” Alexander says. “She felt like there was a need for that. She tried to get involved and create opportunities for other people and herself to deal with the challenges of coming to grips with a disease no one knew about.”
Her mother’s legacy was to do good, and it left an impact on Alexander.
“A lot of my values align with the Gerdau principle of ‘do what is right,’” Alexander says. “Everybody’s values are different, but at the end of the day, I feel I haveintegrity, and as someone who is really strong in my faith, I believe in doing what is right and having kindness for people. I enjoy working for Gerdau because I can align my values with the company’s values of supporting the community.”
HEART OF GOLD
On the American Heart Association’s website, next to a crisp new headshot of Alexander in a power red blazer, her mission is written as a Woman of Impact for 2021:
Throughout history, women have stepped up. Stepped out. Overcome opposition. Led the workforce. Joined forces. Blasted into space. Women’s passion has made history, but their actual hearts haven’t. Heart disease and stroke have never been just men’s diseases, but through the years women have been left out of scientific studies.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. As a Woman of Impact, Alexander is working to bring awareness of heart disease and raise money for the American Heart Association. She was nominated out of a group of 55 women and was one of 21 selected.
“Gerdau has always supported the American Heart Association through the Go Red for Women event and the Heart Walk, so I’ve had a relationship with the American Heart Association as far back as 2010, which was before I left Jackson then came back,” Alexander says.
She was on the committee for the West Tennessee Heart Walk in Jackson before she left to be the Human Resource Manager at Rancho Cucamonga mill in California. Now, she’s back in Jackson, and has plugged into helping the community once again.
“It’s an honor to be nominated, but we have a commitment as well, to not only advocate and communicate about Go Red for Women, but fundraise for the cause,” Alexander says. “Just the cause itself is a personal one for me. I can’t say, ‘no.’”
Her work for the American Heart Association is not only fueled by the desire to help women but also her family history of heart disease.
Her husband was only 41 when he had a stroke. She was at home with their daughter, who had just been born, when she got a phone call in middle of night that he was in the emergency room. He had been working a night shift.
“It’s definitely not something you think about at 40,” Alexander says.
Then an old familiar tune played out again, in 2020, when her father landed in the hospital. This time it was more severe: three strokes, which caused his speech to suffer for months, all during a global pandemic.
“Trying to be available for your family during this time, while working a full-time job, has been challenging for many of us as it is, then you add all the limitations where you can’t even visit your family, it’s a challenge,” Alexander says. “It’s a challenging time for people, and it still affects people even if you don’t have COVID. If you have any kind of illness or condition, you have limited access. And those are the times you want to be with your family the most.”
Still, Alexander had pressed on. And the next time she got a phone call from the hospital, it was much better. In fact, it was her father himself on the other end.
“He had trouble talking — couldn’t put words together — his mind was still healing from the stroke. So when he called, I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m having a real conversation with my father.’”
SINGING HER SONG
Alexander calls herself an introvert, but her list of extracurriculars, and even her job as a leader in Gerdau’s People Area, say differently.
In addition to her work with the American Heart Association, she has been on boards for the Prevention of Child Abuse and the Arts Council. She is a 2019 graduate of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce Leadership Class, where she toured and connected with local schools, the jail system, Jackson City government, and local businesses to drive change and propose community projects. And she loves music and singing, something that also started when her mother was diagnosed with HIV. She sings frequently at her church. Every week, she seems to have a different favorite song to sing — and every week, she wears out that song over her husband’s playful teasing.
“If I don’t know people, I’m very shy,” Alexander says. “Being involved in all these opportunities with the community and Gerdau has helped me be better at being in front of a group and driving change.”
But she’s not ready for her swan song yet. Her passion for the community will continue long after her work as a Woman of Impact is complete and a new group of women are named for 2022. In fact, she welcomes others to join in the serenade.
“You can always start by volunteering for an event and get involved that way,” Alexander says. “There are so many needs in the community. You can attend a heart walk, collect school supplies, or help build a home for someone in need. There are always opportunities for people to get involved. Then you can decide what you’re interested in.
“You don’t have to be a leader to give back,” she says. “You can still be involved – even if you’re shy.”
To donate to Jennifer Alexander’s Go Red for Women campaign, visit https://www2.heart.org/site/TR/GoRedforWomen/GSA-GreaterSoutheastAffiliate?px=3725664&pg=personal&fr_id=5876