RUSSELLTON, Pennsylvania -- Despite his natural shyness, Trevor Donovan has shined in an occupation that demands extroversion both on the job and off. The Hollywood actor, who is currently best known for his roles in the highly popular Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, overcame his social awkwardness by deciding to utilize his high profile for a greater purpose.
This resolution ultimately brought the former "90210" star here to Deer Lakes Middle School, located in a suburban Pittsburgh school district, where he discussed his own experiences with being bullied and reminded children that their words have impact -- especially on social media.
In an era when entertainers, politicians, sports figures and academics often use social media as a sledgehammer against those with "bad" opinions or allegiances, frequently destroying or "canceling" themselves or their victims, Donovan's Twitter feed is part beacon of hope.
"We have very few adults who offer young people examples of how to behave on social media," middle school counselor Jackie Jaros said. "Donovan has a unique skill and story to tell the students about how to use social media positively."
"He leads by example," said Jaros, who kicked off the assembly with a handful of students lined up at a table on the stage, all competing to see who could empty a full tube of toothpaste onto a paper plate first.
When the toothpaste contest was thrown in reverse to see who could put the toothpaste back in the tube the fastest, the lesson unfolded: Despite their best efforts to get it back in the tube, there was more paste on the paper plate than in any of the tubes.
"The lesson was clear: The same thing happens with our words," Jaros explained. "When you say something to somebody, you may go to try to take it back with an apology or with your actions, but it's out there."
"Once the words are said, they never go away," she said.
Located on a former coal patch, the region surrounding the school district is a mix of tidy middle-class homes, a spattering of centuries-old log houses and affluence. The area has farms, industry, a mansion or two, and plenty of deer scurrying along the winding roads that lead to the banks of the Allegheny River.
Donovan's plan in his youth was to be a graphic artist. His younger brother became a fireman. "I grew up in a little house that's built in 1915, 20 minutes south of Mammoth, base of a mountain," he recalled of a childhood he describes as ideal and unpretentious. "It was a gas station until the mid-'70s. And it was converted, so it's over a hundred years old now. And I used to wake up stacked with comforters and stuff, plenty warm, but I'd wake up in the morning; there'd be snow on the foot of my bed because of the crack in the wall that a blizzard would come through."
Hallmark movies, of which Donovan has done nine, have made the Hallmark Channel a powerhouse. Last holiday season alone, the channel attracted almost 70 million unique viewers.
Those successes don't just happen because of the channel's name brand. It is the people in the movies, such as Donovan, who are viewed as integral to the Hallmark experience. Many viewers consider the character and the actors part of their family, according to Hallmark CEO Bill Abbott.
"Trevor is just the person with the biggest heart," Abbott said, "somebody who deeply cares about issues and people and animals, too. He is just a breath of fresh air, a man who is genuine, who is thoughtful, in an era where there are far too many people and much less talented actors in the world who don't always do things for the right reasons."
Abbot adds that Donovan's social media presence is a reflection of everything he tries to cultivate for the Hallmark brand. Donovan is relieved because he says he's just being himself.
"I like showing my fitness routines, my love for dogs, my love for visiting Pittsburgh," he says jokingly before turning back to his passion for helping young people. "I want to be a positive influence on the social media platform. And it's a slower burn, I think, to become more recognized. ... It's easy to make a big negative comment that gets a bunch of people angry, and all of a sudden you're viral or famous. But I wouldn't feel right because it's not me. And besides, that comes at a cost; it's not true to who I am nor true to a greater purpose of wanting to be a stable influence on our young people."
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.