Austin, Texas, Influencer Style Board. Lexi Niccum for UNDISCOVERED.

lexi niccum.

The Lighthouse Project.

Hi, I’m Lexi. For those of you who don’t know me, it may seem as if I’m just another ordinary girl. I graduated high school from Brainerd, a small town in northern Minnesota known mostly as a tourist destination during the summer months, and now I’m heading off to college in the big city.

But my story is far from ordinary.

I was born in Minneapolis, the youngest of 3 kids. We lived on a busy road in the city, with access to endless restaurants, stores, and shops all within five miles of our house. On weekends in the summer we would pack up and head north to my family’s cabin in Brainerd where the beautiful lakes and idyllic scenery provided a stark contrast to our life in the city, giving us all the best of both worlds.

Then my dad received a job offer in Frisco, Texas, and shortly afterwards we sold our house in the city and headed south on a new adventure. My parents had decided to hold onto our family cabin in Brainerd so that we could come back every so often to visit family and friends.

I would be starting third grade in a brand new school, Pink Elementary (yes, that’s the real name). But I didn’t want to move. I didn’t get to see our new house before we moved in, or the school I would be attending. I didn’t want to leave my friends and my family. I had no idea what to expect, and I was terrified to try something new.

But within that same fear I was also determined to try.

Photography: Jennifer Helmka
Photography: Kelly Booth
Photography: Jen Basford
Photography: Jen Basford
Photography: Jen Basford

After we got settled I went out of my way to make friends before school started. Our new house was located in a great neighborhood and was only a block away from my school, which meant there were dozens of kids my age right within walking distance. I was excited to be around so many girls my own age, and after school started we would all walk together every morning and afternoon in one big herd, often playing outside each day when we got home.

A few months into the school year, however, I began to notice something… in a way we all looked the same. Over time I began to see how materialistically focused this community was - basically, if you didn’t wear Miss Me jeans or Sperry’s then you weren’t ‘cool.’ And that was a sad thing to teach elementary schoolers.

School started becoming less and less enjoyable. I was introduced to girl drama and mean friends, and soon became a target for rude comments and pranks. Then I started being bullied by a girl who lived just two houses down from me.

When we first moved in I hung out with her all the time - she was even someone I had considered my best friend, which made this change in her behavior even more hurtful. I tried to ignore her comments and distance myself from her, but when she realized what I was doing she started recruiting others to join in on the bullying.

She got my friends to turn on me by spreading lies so that they wouldn’t play with me anymore. She tormented me emotionally, telling me that I wasn’t good enough or pretty enough, calling me names, knocking on the doors around my house and running away, and teasing me by playing with my friends in my own driveway without me. She even wrote a fake note from a guy I had a crush on that said I wasn’t pretty enough for him and that he would never like me.

As time went on I tried to be the bigger person and completely ignore her, hoping she would just stop. Then one day towards the end of fifth grade my parents announced that we were moving back to Minnesota due to another change in my dad’s career.

Texas had never felt like home to me - personally I had always felt we would move back to Minnesota one day - and while I was excited at the news I was also hesitant to leave my familiarity once again. This time, however, we were going to live in our family cabin for a year before deciding whether to move back to Minneapolis or stay in Brainerd full time.

We moved back the summer before sixth grade, and I was super excited to start middle school and begin a brand new chapter. I started playing volleyball, and practices began a few weeks before school. Soon I was coming home with huge smiles on my face and lots of fun stories about all the friends I was making; I was adjusting well and loving my new life.

About a month and a half into the year my dad was driving me to school one morning when my mom called. He answered the call and put it on speaker, and as soon as I heard my mom’s voice I could tell that something bad had happened. I remember her words vividly to this day, “Honey, I have to tell you something… your friend Ethan died last night. We don’t know how yet, but I thought you should know because I’m sure your friends will be messaging you throughout the day today.”

Photography: Linda Cornelius
Photography: Linda Cornelius
Photography: Jen Basford
Photography: Jen Basford

I was in shock; I didn’t know how to respond. Ethan was one of my friends from Texas who lived in my neighborhood - we were both in sixth grade, and my mom just told me he had died. I didn’t know how to feel or what to do. I had just moved here and no one knew Ethan, so they couldn’t understand how I felt.

By the end of the day we found out how he died. At only twelve years old he had committed suicide - just a few months after starting school and about ten days before his birthday. I was confused and beyond hurt, unable to wrap my head around why he would do this. And while I didn’t know how just yet, I was determined to find a way to increase awareness in our communities that we need to prevent situations like this from happening.

For a while afterwards I kept to myself, not telling any of my Brainerd friends what had happened. I got more involved in things at school, and was truly loving life in Brainerd. Granted it was quite a change from Texas - instead of heading to a water park we would go surfing on a lake, and instead of just being able to ‘run to Target’ we had to drive 30 minutes each way - but we loved every minute of it.

After about two years here we decided to make our living situation permanent, tearing down our cabin to build a house on the lake. Soon I was starting my freshman year, excited for all the fun that comes along with being in high school.

Then in October of 2016 we were all hit hard with unbearable news - my grandma had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and we were told that it was basically ‘the worst of the worst.’ I was crushed. My grandma was my biggest supporter, my shopping partner, my Starbucks date, and most importantly one of my biggest role models.

Photography: Jennifer Helmka
Photography: Jennifer Helmka
Photography: Jennifer Helmka

For two and a half years my grandma battled this disease, ultimately succumbing to the cancer in February of 2018. We were left with our hearts broken and questioning God’s plans, but my grandma had choosen to remain positive and upbeat the entire time. She never once had a negative attitude or outlook on the situation, nor did she ever ask, “Why me?” She didn’t blame others or feel bad for herself, either, she just continued fighting while constantly encouraging and uplifting others as she went along. My grandpa always said that when people got off the phone with her they were always in higher spirits than they were when the call began. She always had a way of making others feel better, and maintained so much strength and positivity til the end.

Throughout her entire battle with cancer she inspired me, teaching me how to become a better person and be more positive myself. She taught me that while life will be unfair and I can’t control what happens, I can control my outlook on life and how I deal with those tough situations.

I was bullied again during my sophomore year in high school. I was told I wasn’t good enough and that I wasn’t pretty enough. I was excluded from hangouts and group chats. I got called names and got mean looks in the hallways. It was the same as it was in Texas except this time it was on a high school level, which was much worse.

While I was going through this, however, I would think about what my grandma was trying to teach me. How it was important to have a positive outlook, and how that can help the people around you. I learned how important it was to surround yourself with people who bring you up, and that you have to be there to bring them up as well.

Photography: Renee Bowen
Photography: Renee Bowen
Photography: Matthew Koller
Photography: Linda Cornelius
Photography: Matthew Koller

Fast forward to my junior year, when we had three suicides within a two-month span at school.

We couldn’t sit back and watch anymore - something had to be done. So a group of high school kids and I started a nonprofit organization called The Lighthouse Project to raise awareness for mental health in our community. Our goal is to implement mental health screenings in Brainerd High School, as well as to provide mental health education and promote mental health awareness in the Brainerd Lakes Area.

Our initial goal was to raise $75,000, and we have now reached $85,000 in a little over four months through donations, selling apparel, and hosting two local events - a family fun night and a bubble run. We are currently planning a second annual family fun night, as well as preparing to pass the reins on to the next group of students.

My passion for mental health awareness has grown stronger year after year, and has shown me the importance of spreading positivity, hope, and care throughout our communities. We all need to surround ourselves with people who make us feel good - who will lift us up and help us grow.

You never know what someone else is struggling with - we all have inner battles that few or none know nothing about. The best way to help is to always be kind.

Photography: Desirée Suchy
Photography: Desirée Suchy
Photography: Gretchen Higgins
Photography: Gretchen Higgins
Photography: Gretchen Higgins
Photography: Patrick McBride
Photography: Renee Bowen
Photography: Jody Rael
Photography: Renee Bowen
Photography: Jody Rael
Photography: Renee Bowen
Photography: Deb Mitzel
Photography: Susan Gietka
Photography: Deb Mitzel
Photography: Susan Gietka
Photography: Susan Gietka
Photography: Wendy Ewing
Photography: Susan Gietka
Photography: Susan Gietka
Photography: Jennifer Helmka
Photography: Jen Basford
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