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Students inspired to walk toward better health

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Weighing close to 500 pounds, disappearing in a crowd would seem like an impossible task. But every day, that’s what Eric Ekis tried to do.

The 14-year-old Franklin Community High School student would sit in the seat farthest back in the classroom, rarely speaking to anyone around him. He’d walk down the halls avoiding eye contact.

He had given up on life.

But with the help of a group of Franklin teachers and students, as well as his own commitment to health, Ekis is regaining control. He has started walking for one hour every day, monitoring his food and working with a dietitian.

A walking club has formed around his efforts, and an attempt to help one struggling student has become a phenomenon spread to other kids at Franklin.

“I’ve been hoping my story gets around to kids who are like me, and it helps them,” Ekis said. “I feel better about myself, and I’m happier.”

As he started his freshman year of high school in August, Ekis’ life was nosediving to its lowest point. He weighed close to 500 pounds, and even on his more than 6-foot-tall frame it was too much for his body to handle.

Depression had set in.

Much of his feelings stemmed from the death of his father three years earlier.

He was sick of being teased for his weight and decided it was easier to stop doing anything than let himself be hurt again.

“It was easier to not care,” he said.

Despite his best efforts, teacher Don Wettrick noticed Ekis the minute he walked into his English class at the beginning of the school year. Ekis was shy and withdrawn, avoided talking to others and simply did his work.

Because of his size, one of the desks that Ekis was sitting at broke while he was in it. Wettrick tried to handle the situation delicately, getting another chair and making sure the rest of the class didn’t notice.

But he also pulled his student aside and offered to walk with him early in the morning before school started.

Being a freshman, Ekis couldn’t drive and had no other way to get to class. The idea fell to the wayside.

“It was a bummer, but I let him know that if he ever needed any help, to let me know. I tried to establish a good relationship to begin with,” Wettrick said.

‘Could just sit by’

But a few weeks later, Wettrick had to pull Ekis aside again. Other students were complaining about his hygiene, so again Wettrick spoke with him in private.

Ekis admitted that he didn’t care anymore. He hadn’t showered in days, and he was prepared to let his health deteriorate. It was easier to not care about his life than to risk being hurt time and time again.

“I asked him when he gave up. And that’s when the tears started,” Wettrick said. “I told him I couldn’t just sit by and watch him die.”

Teacher and student stood in the hallway of the high school, crying together. Wettrick reiterated his desire to help, and Ekis agreed if something could be worked out.

The idea of how to turn Ekis’ life around spawned from Wettrick’s Innovations class. The class challenges seniors to come up with projects that can impact their school and their communities.

Earlier that day, one of Wettrick’s students, Kevin Stahl, was looking for a new project to work on. Wettrick thought, what if Stahl would serve as a mentor to Ekis, picking him up in the morning to walk, giving him someone to talk to and helping connect him to heath officials to start getting fit?

“I was nervous and excited at the same time,” Ekis said. “I didn’t know what to think, but it made me think that something good was coming.”

Stahl started driving to Ekis’ house every day, picking him up before school and walking for an hour with him. He arranged for an appointment with a dietitian at Johnson Memorial Hospital and had Ekis complete a food log to track how many calories he consumed each day.

“The goal was to help students exercise to lose weight, build self-esteem, help grades and have a better outlook on their own lives,” Stahl said.

Impact spread

At the same time, another member of the Innovations class, Grace Seibert, stepped forward to help as well. She wanted to serve as a mentor for a female student, Tessa Chawford.

Chawford, a senior, was in Wettrick’s class when she heard discussions about the walking club. She felt that she had a lot in common with Ekis, having struggled with her weight for years, and wanted to take part.

“I was excited about it, but I was kind of nervous that it was something that wouldn’t work out. I thought we’d do it for a few days, but that nothing would change, that it would just end,” she said.

Then another Franklin teacher got involved.

Lesleigh Groce, who teaches in the Launch alternative education program, didn’t have Ekis in class. But she knew him, having seen him in the hallway. She was concerned about his health and wanted to do something to help.

When Wettrick came up with the idea of a walking club, she quickly volunteered to help oversee Ekis and other students during an open class period at the end of the day.

Launch is a program that focuses on helping freshmen and sophomores who have struggled at the start of their high school careers.

Students are targeted for the extra attention and help for a number of reasons: grades, home life, attendance issues. Ekis’ grades were lower than they should be, and Groce and Franklin administrators thought it might help to be in the program.

So Ekis will be part of Launch starting second semester.

‘Help motivate each other’

Soon, other students were recruited to participate.

Evan Bolin, a junior at Franklin, is one of Groce’s students. She approached him about walking with the club, helping to be a kind of mentor to Ekis and a friend.

Bolin’s dad also died three years ago, so he could relate to the feelings that Ekis was going through about his own loss.

“I thought they both had a lot of things that they could share together. They help motivate each other,” Groce said. “They crack jokes; they give me a hard time.”

Mercedes Flake, a senior and also one of Groce’s students, volunteered to be in the club as well. She is pregnant, and exercise is a way for the senior to be healthy until her baby is born, she said.

“We make it enjoyable. We talk about all kinds of stupid stuff. We make up nicknames for each other,” Groce said.

Ekis and other students have been walking for one hour every day. The club walks laps in the hallways of the high school, winding past classrooms, the performing arts center and back through the foyer of the school.

They’ll keep track of their times on each lap and try to beat it the next time around. Some days they add in a mile on a stationary bike or games of pickup basketball in the gym.

Gross is the friendly drill sergeant, encouraging each walker on and making sure they’re not focused too much on talking rather than walking.

“Walk for exercise; don’t walk to talk,” she called down the hallway when someone fell behind.

Ekis has come to look forward to his daily exercise session. He’s lost between 15 and 20 pounds in just about a month of walking and has noticed that his breathing has improved.

Almost as important, it’s been nice to make new friends and have the support of the rest of the club.

“These guys are so humorous, it’s fun to come out and do this. And I’m seeing results,” Ekis said.

‘I actually feel happier’

Both Stahl and Seibert have been recording the progress of Ekis and Chawford on their blogs. They have provided an online forum to express their feelings as they progress along this exercise experiment.

On Stahl’s blog, Ekis wrote, “I feel as if I have found a new meaning to life as I watch the pounds roll off of me.”

In Chawford’s case, she has chosen to illustrate her emotions in poetry and art, which Seibert has posted on the blog. One drawing, done with graphite and eraser, shows a young woman standing in front of a tornado, in danger of blowing away.

“The motivation is that I feel better. When I first started out, after that first week, my ankles were killing me. But I’ve kept at it, and I feel good,” she said. “I actually feel happier and better about myself. I have the feeling that it was going to be big.”

Ekis has plans to start a YouTube journal, documenting week-by-week progress. The reason: “I wanted to inspire fat kids to have hope,” he said.

His experience has had an impact even outside Franklin. Wettrick wrote about the experience on his blog, Innovation in the Classroom. Within hours, more than 1,000 people had read it.

Four other schools expressed interest in starting walking clubs themselves, using Ekis’ story as inspiration. Johnson Memorial Hospital also wants to start a partnership.

Ekis also hopes that his experience can illustrate how much of an impact teachers can have on their students’ lives.

“If teachers are seeing a kid in class who is struggling, maybe they’ll hear this story and decide to make a change to help those kids, like how my teachers have done for me,” Ekis said.

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