Big Shanty Intermediate School teacher Bill McAllister decided he’d had enough of not seeing his students after COVID-19 forced two months of online school. So, he combined his two passions — running and making his students smile — and plotted a total of 50 miles of routes to see nearly all 48 of the boys and girls he taught this year, from a safe distance of course.

Friday at 2 p.m., McAllister said he’ll set out on his eighth and final multi-mile run in that series of treks. He said the idea came about because of a nasty case of cabin fever. The 57-year-old Big Shanty gifted program teacher said, because he has asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a heart condition, Gov. Brian Kemp’s order requiring sheltering in place for certain residents deemed at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 has applied to him.

McAllister said he’d completed half-marathons in the past, and while he was training for a full marathon in 2016, he had a cardiac incident and had to have a quadruple bypass surgery. Being able to run again, he said, was motivation to focus on his recovery, and since then, he’s gotten back to averaging 15 to 20 miles per week.

So about six weeks ago, when he found himself being tired of missing his third through fifth grade students, he came up with a plan.

“The only time I’ve been able to get out of the house was to go for a run, except for the grocery store and doctors appointments,” McAllister said. “I was running in my neighborhood and I was missing my kids, and I knew they were missing me … so it just kind of came together. It was one of those moments where I thought, ‘You know what? I’m running in my neighborhood, and I’m running in an empty Town Center Mall parking lot … why don’t I just run in my kids’ neighborhood?”

His planning included mapping out routes that made sense and keeping the longer runs to around 8 miles. During the last few weeks of visiting students, his runs have ranged from 4.5 miles to about eight and a quarter.

McAllister is also donating $5 per mile that he runs to Marietta-based MUST Ministries, a local nonprofit which has been feeding families, including Cobb students throughout the pandemic. MUST and the Cobb School District have partnered to provide a week’s worth of meals for pickup to students at designated sites each Monday through at least the end of June. He said he’s encouraging others to donate as well.

McAllister has documented his trips online with maps of each route and a schedule of when he’d likely reach different destinations, and his students and their families have been ready. He said some students have come to the end of the driveway to wave, some have created and held signs cheering him on, and still others have written messages in chalk along his route. And he’s posted many of the pictures from his travels when he finishes a route.

One neighborhood, Legacy Park, pulled out all the stops, he said.

“They had a large sign they had made, and the family that made that contacted other families in the neighborhood, and said, ‘Send your kids’ names. We’ll add it and the year Mr. McAllister taught them,” McAllister said, noting that he’d been teaching at Big Shanty for two decades. “So there were some that go back to 2007 on the sign.”

He said he also encouraged those who didn’t live in the Cobb County School District, or anyone who may have missed him when he ran by, to come to the starting point listed on his routes to share in the special moments. Some have obliged.

Rebecca Southerland, mother of rising Big Shanty fourth grader Matthew Southerland, said when she and her son found out McAllister would be running by, Matthew created a sign to hold up when his teacher passed by. Southerland said as the day drew closer, Matthew became more and more excited.

And when McAllister arrived, she said, he gave Matthew an impromptu third grade graduation.

“He very cutely was like, ‘OK, stand up. I now officially pronounce you a fourth grader,’” she said. “He’s just a really great teacher. He really is.”

The mother of three Cobb students said in a school year when students have missed out on so much, seeing a teacher run 50 miles to visit every student he possibly can was moving. She noted that her oldest son, who was set to receive his diploma from North Cobb High School on Friday, is one of the district’s 9,000 seniors who won’t be able to walk the stage this month.

“To see (McAllister) go to that length to maintain that personal connection with his students was a really incredible thing to see, it really was,” she said. “(Matthew) was super excited, especially since we had … seen the pictures of what other kids had done. It just built up the anticipation, so when the day finally came it was, ‘When’s he coming by? When’s he coming by? When’s he coming by?’”

McAllister said providing that excitement and joy was the goal of his plan all along. He said with the last two months of students’ lives changed dramatically, and with much of it spent missing their teachers and friends, he wanted to provide a sense of community, care and happiness.

“The overarching thing was, ‘What can I do to lift these kids’ spirits a little bit?” McAllister said. “Seeing these kids is very emotional for me — it makes me emotionally squishy. … And it has given me the opportunity to have some closure with my fifth graders. You know, tell them, ‘You’ve done a great job.’ Some of them I’ve had for three years in a row.”

He said good teachers bond with their kids, and teaching is about more than just helping students learn subjects, it’s also about developing strong relationships with the students.

“I’ve come to discover that the greatest joy in the world is a child’s joy. And the second greatest joy in the world is being a part of causing that joy to arise for them,” McAllister said. “So when people say, ‘What are you getting out of this?’ I say, ‘I’m getting to see them happy, and that in turn makes me happy.’”

To view McAllister’s routes, run times and photos, visit bit.ly/2LMSQxg.

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Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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