Sun. May 28th, 2023

Karen Smith, like most moms, would do anything for her kids. That includes walking some 300 miles across the state of Iowa — twice.

On June 9, Smith, of Solon, will start her second walk across Iowa with the goal of raising money and awareness for four mental health nonprofits. Her first walk, last summer, was a result of an idea she had after seeing her husband and two sons struggle with their own mental health for several years.

“I decided I was going to do this walk, and my family thought I was insane. Then to go with it, and I asked their permission, I started a blog to share our family’s story. Because, in my mind, the more regular, everyday people talk about this and put it out there, the more normal it’s going to seem,” Smith said.

Smith’s oldest son was diagnosed with ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder when he was very young. He struggled with academics and socializing throughout his school years, and was often bullied. Her younger son was impacted by his older brother’s mental health struggles and became somewhat anxious himself. Then in high school, he was involved a car crash that wasn’t his fault but resulted in the death of the other driver. The trauma from that event added to his mental health struggles and he didn’t graduate high school, though he did eventually get his GED certificate.

Smith’s husband also has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and Smith said her own mental health has been tested as she’s spent so many years being the main support person for her family.

In October 2021, Smith’s older son ended up in the hospital after some friends found out he had been harming himself. Smith said she hadn’t known he was struggling as much as he was at that time, and the hospital visit caught her off guard.

“I just kept sitting there in my chair thinking, what more can I do to make him feel safe enough, confident enough, not ashamed to talk to people instead of doing things like self-harm, or hiding it?” Smith said. “And this crazy idea popped into my head. I’m going to walk across the state of Iowa, and I’m going to put it out there. I’m going to talk to people. Because my son could be anybody else, you know?”

Smith immediately started researching how to prepare herself for such a walk. She created her own training schedule based on training programs she found online from marathon walkers and others. She planned out her route, which came to about 280 miles after accounting for areas under construction and towns that didn’t have safe places to walk, and learned how to keep her feet safe from blisters and other injuries.

Last year’s route was as straight a path as Smith could find on roads that were safe to walk — with shoulders or sidewalks. This year, she’s planning a route that will be a little bit longer, but will pass closer to where she lives in Solon.

She made the walk with the help of her husband and parents, who picked her up at the end of each day to sleep in a hotel or in her parents’ RV. They would then drop her off in the morning at the same place she had stopped the day before, and drive ahead to wait for her at her next destination.

Leading up to the three-week long walk last year, Smith posted about her family’s struggles on her Facebook blog, titled MMMH Walk Across Iowa — MMMH stands for Mom on a Mission for Mental Health. She sold mental health awareness T-shirts, and created a GoFundMe account to raise money before and during the walk. Last year’s walk raised $4,800, which Smith donated to four nonprofits — Foundation 2, CommUnity Crisis Services, This is My Brave and the I’m Glad You Stayed project — all of which support individuals with mental health needs in Iowa.

“I pretty much did the whole fundraising thing on my own, which was kind of nerve racking of me, dealing with the money. I wanted to make sure people knew I was on the up-and-up and legit and everything,” Smith said.

Smith will be donating to the same four nonprofits this year. She’s selling T-shirts again with the help of 151 Graphics, and has set up another GoFundMe page, which as of Tuesday afternoon had raised $700.

Beyond raising money for nonprofits, Smith said the main goal of her walks is to draw enough attention to get people talking about mental health.

“My main message is to just keep the conversation going. We have to make it feel normal. It can be kids, adults, even elderly people. Any stage of life, any race, any economic status — across all of those, mental illness is there,” Smith said. “We have to keep talking about it. We have to make it feel OK for anybody to say, ‘I’m not doing well. I think I need help.’”

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By Editor