Jacison Tanner (left) and Ezekiel Wells are walking 50 miles on Saturday to raise funds and awareness for mental health. | Photo provided

Two Oak Park and River Forest High School students are planning to walk the length of two marathons – over 50 miles – on Saturday, April 17, to raise money and awareness for mental health organizations.

Senior Jackson Tanner and sophomore Ezekiel Wells, both Oak Park residents, have raised over $5,000 in donations so far for Thrive Counseling Center (thrivecc.org) in Oak Park and NAMI Metro Suburban (namimetsub.org). Their “loose route” for Saturday will take them through Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park.

The idea for the fundraiser, A Step in the Right Direction, was hatched when Tanner and Wells, both cross country runners, woke up one morning and decided to see how far they could walk. They ended up walking 26.2 miles, marathon distance, about 50,000 steps.

They decided to cover more miles, and a family friend suggested doing a fundraiser.

“We discussed different issues that were relevant during the pandemic,” Tanner said. “Ultimately, we decided that mental health was the cause for which we wanted to raise money and awareness.”

In a video Tanner and Wells made to spread awareness of their fundraiser, they cite a staggering statistic: during the pandemic, the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression quadrupled, from one in 10 in January 2019 to four in 10 during the COVID-19 crisis.

After researching, they decided to raise money for Thrive Counseling Center and NAMI Metro Suburban. Thrive Counseling Center’s mission is “to build healthy minds, families, and communities by empowering people to attain mental and emotional well-being,” and the nonprofit provides psychiatric services, including counseling and emergency intervention, for the Oak Park and River Forest community. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Metro Suburban provides free mental health services and support through a variety of programs.

“We chose those two specific organizations because we wanted to make an impact on different scales,” said Wells. “Thrive is a local group, which helps people in our community. With NAMI, we can stretch our reach to Chicagoland.”

In addition to being runners, both Tanner and Wells are also long-time Boy Scouts, and they’ve done several backpacking trips, covering over 100 miles over the course of 12 days. But their goal for Saturday is over half that distance, 52.4 miles, in only one day.

Tanner and Wells reached out to local businesses looking for sponsorships, not so much to help them financially, they said, but for help with promotion. Almost immediately, Amanda Daly, owner of The Daly Bagel (thedalybagel.com), responded, saying she’d be glad to help.

And earlier this week they heard from Carey Carlock, CEO of Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park.

Carlock said she heard about Tanner and Wells from her daughter, who’s a senior at OPRF and showed her the video the boys had made.

“That video they created was aesthetically beautiful and really on point with the message,” Carlock said. In addition to a financial donation of $500 from Riveredge, the mental health hospital and Carlock personally are supporting A Step in the Right Direction. Carlock said she’s planning a livestream talking about the fundraiser as well as potentially walking virtually with Tanner and Wells on Saturday.

“I just really want to commend them for their thoughtful, compassionate leadership,” said Carlock. “And whenever we’re getting a grassroots effort for our young people to talk about reducing stigma and reaching out to our community and our quest for wellness, it’s going to change the narrative and it’s going to save lives.”

The financial support, of course, is what Tanner and Wells are looking for. They want to raise as much as they can for Thrive and NAMI. But of equal importance is spreading the word about mental health.

“We’re hoping to destigmatize mental illness,” Tanner said. “When someone seeks help for mental health issues, they’re not crazy; they’re brave. We want to help remove the negative connotations associated with seeking help for mental health.”

Wells added that they also hope to make people aware of the local mental health resources available, including Thrive, NAMI and Riveredge Hospital.

Tanner and Wells plan to start walking at 5 a.m. on Saturday, taking a break for breakfast at The Daly Bagel (130 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park) at 7:30 a.m. and stopping for lunch at a family member’s house later in the day. They hope to finish by 11 p.m. They’ll provide updates on Facebook and Instagram throughout the day.

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