Who is that man in orange? Why is he hiking across central Texas?
Co-founder of “HIKE for Mental Health” Tom Kennedy is raising awareness for those with mental health issues but not just raising awareness about the illness, he's hiking for stigma awareness.
A native of New Jersey, Kennedy has been hiking since he was a teen and has hiked all over the country.
HIKE for Mental Health is an all-volunteer nonprofit group Kennedy helped to co-found in 2011, to combine his love of hiking and desire to do good for others.
"The link between mental health and time spent in nature has been known for centuries," Kennedy said. "One in four people have a mental illness and can benefit from the exercise and scenery."
Kennedy said those with mental heath issues, often hide their illness, because of the stigma associated with an invisible disease.
"A lot of people are worried what others will think if their condition is found out. They are afraid to lose family and friends because the stigma is so bad. When I was young there was a stigma about breast cancer – no one talked about it – now we're all 'saving the ta-tas,'" Kennedy said. “In my lifetime I saw that stigma erased and now I am looking to erase the stigma about mental health during my lifetime."
Kennedy left Friendswood on Feb. 1, on his 300-mile “Steps Against Stigma” trek. He made Gonzales on Tuesday.
"I cannot wait to come back to Gonzales," Kennedy said of Gonzales. "I want to bring my girlfriend back with me and stay over with time to enjoy the town."
Upon learning Kennedy would be camping under the bridge at Kerr Creek Park, Jenny Nesser, manager of The Dilworth Inn and Suites put Kennedy in a suite for the night and the bartenders at The Running M Bar and Grill hosted him for dinner and drinks.
"I have found hospitality in Gonzales second to none," Kennedy said. "I'll be back. For sure."
Next stop for Kennedy is San Antonio. He intends to be at the Alamo for Alamo Day festivities on Saturday.
"I just want to be visible. I want to attract as much attention as possible," he said. "I want people to see me and ask me questions – and hear me out."
Kennedy hopes to arrive in Austin on March 1. He also hopes to speak with legislators and maybe even the governor.
"I timed this trip so I was leaving on the first Wednesday of the month and arriving on the first Wednesday of the month," Kennedy said. "I would like Texas legislators to declare the first Wednesday of the Month Mental Health Awareness Day."
Kennedy said he wears orange for two reasons, visibility – the road can be dangerous for hikers – and awareness. He said he would like “HIKE for Mental Health” and “Steps Against Stigma” supporters to wear orange on the first Wednesday, as many already do.
Kennedy is active on social media. His Facebook page “Steps Against Stigma” is following his journey. Another page, “HIKE for Mental Health,” follows the fellowship and fundraising efforts of Kennedy and countless volunteers.