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Columbus native helps at-risk teenagers take control, flourish

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Two hundred pounds.

That’s how much weight 15 students have lost since January with the help of Columbus native Lesleigh Groce, an alternative educator at Franklin Community High School.

Eric Ekis, a freshman who just last year weighed close to 500 pounds, has lost 28 pounds. Freshman Brianna Underwood has lost 24 pounds, and senior Danielle Grass has lost 17.

The three students come from different and difficult backgrounds — Ekis’ father died in 2010, and both of Underwood’s parents are in prison — but they have one thing in common: Groce.

She is more than a teacher for the students. She’s a motivator, a friend, a mother and a drill sergeant.

A different approach

Groce leads the Launch program at Franklin, which targets at-risk students and places them in smaller classes. The students could be struggling with grades, behavior, health or all of the above.

“They don’t fit in other places,” she said. “There’s no sport, no group, no club. They’re just floating through the breeze. Suddenly they’re failing, and people don’t notice.”

But it’s Groce’s job to notice.

Every semester the school identifies the students who are at risk for failing or not graduating. From there, she works with those students to build alternative education into their schedule.

“It’s a proactive approach so the kids don’t feel like they’re in this big giant hole and they can never dig their way out,” she said.

She has found physical education has prevented many students from graduating, so she focuses her classes on nutrition, fitness, and physical and mental health.

Every morning, they walk or play basketball or work with a personal trainer.

“These kids don’t dress out in PE because people might see all their insecurities,” she said. “They don’t want to participate because it will expose them.”

Insecurities in focus

But exposing them is exactly what Groce does when the students come to her. She opens up the conversation so students can confront and address their problems.

“I felt like I was depressed. I felt like I was fat,” Underwood said. “But Mrs. Groce has given us this opportunity, and it’s like I need to grab it. We’ve made this class into a family.”

She said she has never felt a connection to a teacher as she has had with Groce, and that connection is motivating her to come to school every day.

Ekis, too, said the class is a second family — it’s an escape. After his dad died and depression took over, Ekis had given up.

Then teacher Don Wettrick, who has since left FCHS for a job in Noblesville, intervened. He told Ekis he refused to sit by and watch him die.

After that breakthrough, Ekis let Groce into his life. And then he let the Launch classmates in.

“They push each other, and they push Eric,” she said.

Groce pushes Ekis, too.

Fitness instructor Cheryl Fiscus Jenkins donated an hour of her time Tuesday morning to lead an aerobic dance class.

“Come on, you can do it,” Groce shouted over her shoulder to Ekis and his classmates. “Let me see it!”

Ekis said her energy keeps his spirits up.

“She must drink six cups of coffee in the morning,” he said.

Groce denied that — she sticks to one large cup of unsweetened black iced tea.

“I just am a morning person who teaches high school,” she said. “They love my spunk.”

She said her spunk was renewed this year.

“I have tenure,” she said. “I could have stopped caring by now, but I won’t. This class will inspire me as a teacher for a long time to come.”

She cares about her students, and she cares about their health.

“Childhood obesity is a big deal,” she said. “I think it’s just when you see a kid step up and say, ‘I want to do this,’ that makes a difference,” she said.

Encouraging Ekis

Encouragement also has come from area businesses.

Retailer hhgregg in Greenwood donated a treadmill.

Anytime Fitness is offering a personal trainer every Tuesday.

Pilsung ATA Martial Arts has invited Ekis and two friends to join the studio.

Rose Meyer, chief instructor and co-owner at Pilsung, read about Ekis in a recent newspaper article and wanted to contribute. She lost a parent when she was in high school and said she was bullied afterward.

“It just crushed my spirits,” she said. “Hopefully we can help him heal both mentally and physically so he can be a better leader.”

Allen Smith, a Columbus firefighter and a contestant on “The Biggest Loser,” visited Launch to talk, and Subway-icon Jared Fogle will visit in April.

Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres and Queen Latifah have all asked to tell Ekis’ story.

“It has just taken me by surprise,” Ekis said. “It’s just crazy. It happened overnight.”

He Googles his name every once in a while and has found it in newspapers as far as New Zealand, Japan and Iran. The attention is nice, he said, but sometimes the comments are not.

But he’s learned not to sweat those comments. He said those people are just bitter.

“Or they’re in the same place I was last year, and they’re jealous,” he said.

And, if they are in that place, he has some advice for them.

“Find people willing to work with you,” he said. “Reach out. You might end up where I am — in a classroom with your friends, who are learning to Zumba and merengue in the next room.”

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