Scott Roberson/The Daily Journal/AP
February 23, 2014 10:10 PM

What started as one teacher’s plan to help a student lose weight has turned into a school-wide healthy-living effort in Franklin, Ind.

After suffering the death of his father and a long hospital stay, 14-year-old Eric Ekis entered Franklin Community High School School standing 6’4″ and weighing 510 pounds. His size made him a target for bullies and isolated him, socially and mentally, from his peers.

When teacher Don Wettrick approached Ekis about exercising together, the embarrassed teen turned him down. So Wettrick asked a second time, a few days later. Eric turned him down again. At the end of September, Wettrick approached Ekis a third time, but this time, he didn’t come to Ekis with a mission. Instead, he just asked the boy if anything was wrong.

The answer: His grief had turned to depression. Ever since his father’s death, he’d given up. He wanted help, but didn’t know how to ask.

So Wettrick went to work. With the help of popular senior Kevin Stahl, who takes his independent study Innovations class, the teacher organized an effort to help Eric get healthy. They started simple, with a light walking regimen, and then threw in more intense activities like yoga and basketball.

The project was more successful than they intended. Inspired by Eric, other students joined him in his efforts. The kid who used to sit by himself in the back of the classroom is now the leader of a gang of walkers who take laps around the school. Other students are focusing on eating better lunches in the cafeteria, and the school has plans to bring in a nutritionist to help them make healthier choices.

“This has almost been more an anti-bullying campaign,” Wettrick told Today. “If more students wanted to help, as opposed to point and laugh, [it] can lead to great bonds and friendship.”

Eric and Kevin now record a video blog marking their progress. While losing weight is one of the goals, they’re trying to avoid a Biggest Loser situation – building healthy habits and self-esteem is just as important as slimming down.

Friday is Wettrick’s last day in Franklin – he’s moving to become innovations director at another high school an hour away – but Eric credits his efforts for changing his life.

“I was the one kid who was always invisible,” Ekis told the Indy Star.

“Now that everyone’s started helping me, I feel a whole lot better.”

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