Local mom walks across Iowa, fundraises for mental health awareness

Karen Smith of North Liberty, Iowa, wanted to show her sons and anyone else struggling with mental illness that they are not alone.


Nick Layeux

Karen Smith poses for a portrait in Iowa City on Dec. 7. Smith walked 312 miles to raise awareness for mental health awareness this past summer.

Grace Katzer, News Reporter

Karen Smith of North Liberty spent her summer walking across Iowa to raise awareness for mental health.

Smith, who is a secretary at Van Allen Elementary, completed her journey after walking over 312 miles and raising over $3,700 through a GoFundMe to support mental health awareness. She donated the money raised to the mental health initiatives Foundation 2, CommUnity Crisis Center, and the I’m Glad You Stayed Project.

Smith started her journey in June at the Big Sioux River on the Western Iowa border. She walked along the state highways and stopped in small towns to talk with people about mental health awareness, sharing her story in hopes of ending the stigma around mental illness. 

“I wanted to normalize the conversation. That was my hope for sharing our story,” Smith said. “I wanted people to feel comfortable to speak up and ask for help if they need it. It does feel very isolating when you feel like people don’t understand what it takes just to get through the day.”

Smith said her family was her number one motivation to act. 

RELATED: Iowa City students march to Pentacrest to call for end to gun violence

“My son was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age as well as severe anxiety that eventually led to depression,” she said. “Then my youngest suffered a dramatic car accident that led to PTSD and depression at 16.”

Smith’s oldest son was admitted to the hospital for two days to receive treatment for self-harm injuries in October 2021, she said.  

“I remember picking him up from the hospital and asking, ‘Why didn’t you talk to me?” Smith said. “‘Why didn’t you tell me you were struggling after everything we’ve been through?’”

Smith said that was the moment when she realized she had to do more. 

“I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to make my sons understand how serious I was about mental health,” she said. “So, I decided to walk across Iowa.”

Talking with other people along her journey was one of Smith’s favorite parts of walking across the state, she said. 

“I remember in the very first town I was wearing my Walk Across Iowa shirt, and a lady came up to me curious about what I was doing,” Smith said. “She was very kind and interested in my story and even called the local newspaper to write about it.”

Smith said it was those kinds of experiences that made her feel like she was accomplishing her goals on the walk. 

Smith’s son, Noah Smith, 21, said he is proud of his mom and what she has worked toward. 

“It didn’t surprise me that she wanted to make a big deal about advocating for mental health,” he said. “She has always been a kind and helpful person, and I’m grateful to call her my mom.”

Danielle Weipert, Van Allen Elementary student and family advocate, joined Smith for three days on her journey. 

“It was definitely trying,” she said. “We walked right along the main highway with semis going 60 miles an hour and rocks kicking up at us.”

Weipert said she and Smith had people stopping along the way to ask if they needed anything.

“It was great to be in our own little world, walking along the highway just advocating mental health,” she said. “I was so happy Karen had the opportunity to tell people her story and why we were walking across Iowa.”

Amy Schultz, Van Allen’s school counselor, said Smith shows her passion for mental health at the elementary school. 

“She will always help students take a moment to pause, take deep breaths, draw, play with a stress ball, and relax,” Schultz said. “She really focuses on kindness and tries to promote positivity up in the office as kids are coming in to start their day.”