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Educator Walking Across Suffolk County To Bring Attention To Students' Mental Health During COVID Pandemic

NORTHPORT, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- A Long Island educator is on a mission to bring attention to students' mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

He's doing it in dramatic fashion by walking hundreds of miles across Suffolk County this week, CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff reported Tuesday.

Jeremy Thode has a lot of ground to cover. He's walking a big message into all 59 high schools in Suffolk County. He's being met with cheers, applause and even marching bands as he marches 300 miles in six days.

"I walked from Center Moriches to Eastport-South Manor to William Floyd to Bellport to Patchogue-Medford," Thode said.

That was just half of day one.

Thode, the athletic director for Center Moriches School District, was inspired to spotlight mental health in the wake of an extraordinarily challenging year for kids.

"I've seen with my own kids what COVID has done with anxiety, depression," said Thode. "And that's on top of what kids are dealing with generally, without even COVID. So it's really just exploding."

"Whether it was hybrid or full virtual, whatever else, we're not normal. Things haven't been normal," he added.

Thode's new normal is 14 hours of walking daily to a dozen high schools. He pounds the pavement solo and sometimes with friends to pound the message, "You will not walk alone."

"When you have a mental health issue or concern, you need to ask for help," he said. "Don't keep it inside because we don't want to bottle it up and it to blow in a negative way."

"A lot of people in education right now are so committed to this message and this idea of supporting students first with their own well-being and their own mental health, before we worry about content," said Principal Tim Russo of Harborfields High School.

Thode's heart is in finishing in six days, but his feet may have other ideas.

"I ripped open my feet with blisters and I thought I was going to quit the first day," Thode said.

But he walked on, thanks to those cheering him on.

"You get lonely and you're at wits end and people come and they help, and all of sudden I get inspired and I can walk a little faster and I can walk a little stronger," he said.

If Thode can't make it, he'll do what he preaches to students along this journey. He'll ask for help and finish the journey with supporters to show students no one can always walk alone.

Thode said he was inspired by the movie "Joe Bell," about a dad who journeys cross-country on foot.

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