By Craig Stanley, NBC News
TIPTON, Iowa -- Jacob Stallman, 17, is drawing national attention for standing up to bullying – something he’s been dealing with since middle school.
“I was really short and really fat,” Jacob said. “All of a sudden, I was growing super-fast, like Hulk, and my belly went down. I was like, ‘So the bullying stops here ‘cause they can’t call me fat anymore.’”
The weight loss didn’t end the bullying, however. It only got worse after Jacob came out as gay to a friend at school in the seventh grade.
“There was the whole middle school effect where you told one person, they told another, and they told someone -- next day at school, it was a hot topic,” Jacob said. “Then I was bullied ‘cause I was gay, ever since.”
The bullying carried into high school. His mother, Tania McAtee, noticed something was wrong early on.
“Before, we had several talks—we were very, very close,” McAtee said. “And then when he started having trouble when he was in 6th and 7th grade, he became more angry, somewhat withdrawn. Our special talks that we had become few and far between.”
Eventually, McAtee says her son broke down in front of her – and confessed that he was a victim of persistent bullying.
“I was heartbroken,” McAtee said. “It's very, very difficult to see that he felt alone, that he didn't have anybody.”
McAtee later discovered her son had attempted to kill himself, and she grew desperate to help him.
“I was really angry, I was really upset, and I wanted to address the situation as soon as possible,” McAtee said.
McAtee sought the support of her school board, with little reaction. After learning that parents in her town were having similar issues with their children, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I decided to start an anti-bullying campaign on Facebook,” McAtee said. “When I started it more people were coming forward, letting him know that they had the same concerns you know, with being bullied in the school district, elementary, middle and high school.”
McAtee created “Tipton Against Kids Being Bullied” – a group that puts members in touch with anti-bullying resources including laws, processes, and advice for those being bullied. It also established a network where parents are able to share their concerns, or seek advice to help other parents. McAtee posted fliers around town to get people to visit and join the group.
The group was met with mixed reviews from Tipton – and from Jacob.
“I got extremely nervous,” Jacob said. “I didn’t want extra attention brought to me. I kind of wanted to stay low. “
“Many people said it was a great thing to start,” McAtee said. “And then other people thought I was ridiculous, because in their mind, kids will be kids, they need to work through it, that it was overdramatic, that type of thing.”
Shortly after creating the group, McAtee and Jacob began to see the impact they were having and decided not to give up.
“It was such a monumental moment for me, ‘cause I noticed how much other kids in the school district are being bullied,” Jacob said. “When all these people started coming forward and it became less about me and became all about these little kids, and helping them, and letting them know that they’re perfect, no matter what.”
Today, the group has a membership of more than 1,900 members, and in addition to helpful information for combating bullying, McAtee and Jacob also reach out directly to victims of bullying.
“We send cards all over the country to kids who are being bullied, to let them know that we are there for them," McAtee said. “Jacob always writes to them, offers advice. If they ever need to talk he also gives out his cell -phone number or his email address so kids can reach out to him any day or any time.”
The two say they’ve seen progress with this anti-bullying campaign – including convincing the school district to incorporate similar efforts.
“They talk about it a little bit more than what they have in the past,” McAtee said. “We still have a long ways to go, but [bullying] is acknowledged.”
Jacob continues to blog about his experiences, and helps his mother with the organization. He was recently honored in Denver with the “Spirit of Matthew Award” from the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Shepard was murdered in 1998, because he was gay. Jacob also received a letter of acknowledgement from U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.
While helping kids throughout Iowa and beyond across the globe, Jacob also says he’s doing better himself.
“Things are getting extremely better for me,” Jacob said. “Those bullies that used to taunt me, I don’t see them anymore. I ignore them, they ignore me, so it’s getting better.” Jacob has also taken another courageous step, becoming the first male to join his high school cheer squad.
“At first [the bullying] was kind of scary, I just wanted to survive high school like everyone else. And then I realized that why should I just try to survive?” Jacob said. “I should live my life like everyone else.”
Now a senior in high school, Jacob is looking forward to graduating and pursuing a career in culinary arts. He also says he’d like to remain an activist.
“I want to do something major to help … equality,” Jacob said. “I want to do something to change America. It’s going to be a big task, but I’m up for a good challenge!”
“To see where he was one year ago, thinking of ending his life, to where he is now ... I can't really put it into words,” McAtee said. “To come out in a town that is about 3,500, to go through bullying, to have everything part of him being exposed and to build up from that, to be able to be a stronger person but also in mind wanting to help others, he is a wonderful kid.”