Joe Bell had planned to walk for two years cross-country, from his Oregon hometown to New York City, to share the story of his late son, dead of suicide. He never made it.
Last Wednesday, according to the New York Times, Bell was walking through eastern Colorado when he was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer with a sleepless driver at the wheel. He was nearly six months into his journey. Bell had been on his way to the most recent of many speaking engagements, this one at a church in the town of Hugo. The talks were impromptu affairs, arranged whenever Bell met someone on the road who listened to his story. He spoke in churches but also bars, schools, outreach centers, even restaurants—anywhere he could find an audience.
Bell's son, Jadin, was fifteen years old and openly gay. Although he had friends, he was also bullied at school, and in January he hanged himself on a piece of playground equipment. Grieving and at a loss for what to do, Bell took inspiration for other awareness-raising walkers. Jadin had dreamed of one day working in the New York City art scene, so that was where his father headed.
Bell spread Jadin's story at group talks. He had thousands of Facebook followers. He told the story to anyone who would listen. He insisted on walking, only accepting rides within large cities. He carried a sleeping bag and slept under trees and by highways. All along the way, he spread not only the tale of his son's ordeal but also awareness of the plight still faced by gay teens across the country and of the effects of bullying.
From Oregon to Colorado, Bell fulfilled his mission. But in his own way, he was also expressing his grief. Said one longtime friend, "He had to heal himself."
To learn more and donate, go to the Joe's Walk for Change website.
[All images via Joe's Walk for Change on Facebook]