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Local Man Walking Across America to Raise Mental Health Awareness

Sep 27, 2016 09:25PM ● Published by Shannon Antinori

Dan Chapman (center) with some friends he's met along his journey from Maine to California. (Photo provided by Dan Chapman)

Fall has barely begun, but Dan Chapman already has plans for Christmas.

“I’m pushing to jump in the ocean in San Francisco on Christmas,” said the former District 308 employee and Morris resident. That’s because he hopes that will be the day he completes a cross-country hike that began July 18 at a lighthouse near Portland, Maine.

Chapman is walking across the country for mental health awareness – and to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. While he’s at it, he’s raising money to benefit the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to alleviating the suffering of mental illness by funding scientific research.

“People will talk about cancer and everything else, but they won’t talk about mental health,” said Chapman, who is no stranger to mental health issues.

After losing his job in 2010, Chapman said he fell into a deep depression.

“I was in my house for three months and never got out,” Chapman said. The depression led Chapman to gain a significant amount of weight.

At close to 300 pounds, “I almost died from a diabetic coma,” Chapman said.

Chapman said his late father also battled bipolar disorder, and he has friends who also struggle with mental illness. Chapman’s more than 3,000-mile trek to spread awareness started as part of his efforts to become healthier both mentally and physically.

“I bought a Fitbit,” he said. “I started trying for 1 million steps every month.”

By the end of April, Chapman had surpassed his goal and lost nearly 100 pounds – so he decided to take on a new challenge.

Despite record heat in many areas, Chapman began walking across the country July 18. As he walks, Chapman carries a banner emblazoned with his "Follow My Walk" website, which details his cross-country journey.

“My beard is pretty long, so a lot of people think I’m homeless,” said Chapman. “Probably 95 percent of people, once I tell them the story, they’re more than willing to help,” he said.

Along the way, strangers have given Chapman free food and, in some cases, paid for him to stay at a hotel for the night. Other nights, Chapman fends for himself, taking shelter where he can.

“I’ve stayed in truck stops, bus stations – I stayed under a bridge one night,” he said. “Anywhere that’s 24/7.”

The most rewarding part of the trip is connecting with people he meets along the way, Chapman said.

“I’ve met homeless veterans – they don’t have the help they need,” Chapman said. “I know where they’re coming from. I’ve met so many people, they just tell me their stories."

In Massachusetts, he talked with a teen struggling with mental illness and self-harm; now, Chapman said, the teen calls and emails regularly to check in with him.

“(I’m) just giving a little bit of hope to them – and to myself,” Chapman said of the people he’s met on his journey.

Chapman said he sleeps between two and three hours each night before walking 12 hours each day.  

“I try to get about 20 to 30 miles a day,” said Chapman, noting that he’s already gone through one pair of shoes.

Focusing on the finish line has kept Chapman going.

“Every once in a while, I’ll put on some music,” he said. “I mostly just think to myself. I have to stay focused on my goal for the day.”

GoFundMe account has been set up to help pay for Chapman’s trip and to raise money for the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Twenty-five percent of donations will go towards Chapman’s travel expenses, and the remaining 75 percent will benefit the charity.

This week, Chapman is passing through the Chicago area, with plans to walk past Homestead Elementary, where he once worked as a custodian. He estimated he might pass the school by Wednesday or Thursday.

Besides a Christmas Day dip in the ocean, Chapman is making other plans for when he completes his journey.

“I’m going to write a book when I’m done – and then I’m going to find a job,” he said.

Follow Chapman's travels on his Follow My Walk Facebook page.

Donations to Chapman's GoFundMe page will go in part to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

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