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Alexis Kauchick, 17, is shining a light on an important topic – mental illness – for all the right reasons.
After enduring the deep, painful loss of her brother and best friend, who both suffered from mental health issues, the North Palm Beach, Florida, native took it upon herself to bring attention to the often-stigmatized issue that affected her loved ones – by crafting candles.
Kauchick founded Eternal Essence Candle Company, a non-profit soy candle business, in 2012 to support community programs that address mental illnesses, ranging from bipolar disorder to depression and addiction.
Each carefully handcrafted candle comes with a brochure detailing information and statistics on mental disorders. And Kauchick says their flickering lights symbolize the strength it takes to battle mental illness.
“I make candles to help end the stigma associated with mental illness,” Kauchick, a high school senior at The Benjamin School, tells PEOPLE. “Different diseases and cancers have specific colors or symbols associated with them to inspire hope, so why not mental illness? I think candles should represent this disease.”
Since its inception three years ago, Kauchick has donated over $70,000 in candle sales to various mental illness agencies.
“We need to talk about this taboo subject,” she says. “It’s time.”
The Eternal Flame
The teen first came up with the idea for Eternal Essence when Todd Kauchick, her half-brother who battled alcoholism, died from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 47 in 2011.
Todd, a candle-maker in his spare time, taught his sister tricks for making the best candles during camping trips the pair would take in the Smoky Mountains.
After he died, it took several months for Kauchick to be able to experiment with the inherited equipment he willed down to her. But when she was ready, the teenager studied his painstaking, hand-written notes and began crafting her own candles.
A year later she started selling her candles at craft shows – raising money to bring in live music to a local senior citizens home.
“In the two years after Todd passed, I made $8,000,” she says. “I was making the candles to keep the memory of my brother alive. But I think that whole time I knew Todd wanted my candles to have a bigger meaning, and I was still searching for what that would be.”
In 2014, Kauchick discovered that higher calling.
When the teenager’s close friend, Asher Hendel, who suffered from bipolar disorder, took his own life on November, 11, 2014, Kauchick knew her candles were meant to bring awareness to mental illness.
“The direction of my business immediately changed,” she says. “When Asher took his own life, people talked about him like he died. But he didn t die, he killed himself. And that s when it hit me. We need to have a conversation about mental illness, because people don t understand what it is.”
Kauchick says everything came full circle when she realized her beloved brother’s alcohol addiction was likely caused by a mental health problem.
“Mental illness is all around us, but people avoid it because they think it’s taboo or weird or preventable,” she says. “Maybe if we were able to bring it up in a conversation without someone feeling uncomfortable, then we could begin to truly understand it.”
I Can Generation
Kauchick has made over $70,000 by selling her candles to local distributors through her online website, and at local craft shows.
Just last month she gave $30,000 of her earnings to The Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation – an organization dedicated to fostering research for early-onset bipolar disorder. She gave the rest of her funds to mental illness institutions around the country.
Dusty Sang, co-founder of The Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation, says Kauchick’s incredible contributions to his foundation will be used to “further spread awareness and understanding of the disorder.”
“She’s part of the ‘I can’ generation, because she has a social conscious and she acts on it,” Sang, 67, tells PEOPLE. “She’s 17 and has already been through so much. Yet she is making her voice heard instead of not doing anything.
“There is a sincerity and authenticity to Alexis that matures her beyond her years,” he says.
A Beacon of Hope
Kauchick’s mother, Holly Maisto, says her daughter’s actions have inspired kids in their South Florida community to begin a conversation about youth mental health issues.
“She’s hyper-aware of all the mental illness around her because she’s seen it affect her loved ones,” Maisto, 42, tells PEOPLE. “So she’s trying to make a difference. She’s positive that her generation can be the ones to make a change. And she is a leader in the movement.”
Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches senior Kendall Jackson agrees – Kauchick’s candle-making has positively impacted her life in a huge way.
“I’ve struggled with depression for a long time and it’s something not a lot of people talk about,” Jackson, 17, tells PEOPLE. “Our families don’t want to talk about it, we don t want to talk about it. The amount of effort Alexis puts into bringing awareness to this issue means so much.”
“The candles are a beacon of light for our generation. She’s speaking up about an issue when no one else is. She is our voice and it means so much,” she adds.
Kauchick plans to attend college next fall, but she says keeping Eternal Essence running will be a top priority.
“My message is too important to stop trying to spread it!” she says. “I took something negative and turned it into something positive. I want people to know they can do that in their lives too.”