LA GRANDE, Ore. — The father of a gay Oregon teenager who hanged himself is walking across the United States to spread his message against bullying.
Joe Bell says it’ll take two years to walk 5,000 miles, at a rate of 15 to 25 miles a day, and make it to the East Coast. He set out Saturday.
He and his 15-year-old son, Jadin, had gone to a counselor to report the bullying before the high school sophomore from La Grande hanged himself in a schoolyard Jan. 19. The teenager died two weeks later.
The youth had been open about being gay.
The school and family haven’t released details of the bullying or confirmed a connection between that and his suicide.
Bell resigned from his longtime job with Boise Cascade to make his walk, which he’ll do on two artificial knees. The replacement surgery was done in 2010.
“I needed a break. I was ready, I was looking for something different,” he told the La Grande Observer when he announced plans for the trek. “I just wish, however, that I was doing this under different circumstances.”
Along the way, he plans to speak at schools and other venues, and emphasize the importance of speaking up against bullying. He has set up a foundation, Faces for Change, to promote anti-bullying programs.
His planned route will take him through southern states, including Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, before he moves north through Pennsylvania, New York and his destination of the Delaware coastline.
The New York stop will be important, he said, because Jadin visited the city on a school trip to eastern historic sites.
“Jadin wanted to someday live in New York City,” he said.
He recalled that some of the most exciting days of Jadin’s life were the ones he spent in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., while visiting historic sites with an eighth-grade Philadelphia Trip group from La Grande.
“That trip was the highlight of his life,” said Bell, his eyes filling with tears.
Jadin was a cheerleader at La Grande High School and was a person known for always having a smile on his face and a compliment for everyone he met. The sophomore’s popularity was such that more than 300 people, primarily students, attended a memorial service for him at LHS.
Joe Bell is making the walk not only to honor Jadin and speak out against bullying, but also to help himself cope.
“It will be a healing process for him,” said Bud Hill, a good friend of Bell’s and a co-founder of the Faces for Change Foundation. “He enjoys the outdoors.”
Bell said that the hardest part of his journey will be being away from his family. Still, he will see his family many times for his son, Joseph, and wife, Lola, plan to meet him regularly on his journey.
Some people are telling Bell that his journey will prove too challenging for him.
“They tell me, ‘You can’t do that,'” Bell said.
Bell responds by noting that tens of thousands of women and children made a much more difficult journey when they came to the Northwest on the Oregon Trail in the 1800s. He believes his walk will be a piece of cake by comparison.
“We are so spoiled,” Bell said.
His walk will be a testament to marvels of modern medicine. Bell had major back surgery and double knee replacement surgery in 2010. He hopes that his walk will inspire people who have had joint replacement surgery by showing them what they can do.
“I may be the first person to walk across the United States with two artificial knees,” he said.
Bell said he knows that he will feel as if Jadin will be with him throughout his journey. Bell also knows that his journey will be filled with twists he cannot anticipate.
“I can only put it in God’s hands,” Bell said.