Being that change: Alexandria man focuses on the positive

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A story on the inception of The 820 Project, titled "One man, one mission: The 820 Project," was published in the Friday, April 24, 2015, Echo Press.

Two years ago, Eric Lehn of Alexandria created an "inspire the youth" movement with the goal of spreading positivity to area young people.

It started with a Facebook page where Lehn posted uplifting content and encouraged others to do the same. Then, last February, he started an Instagram account.

At the time, he had about 200 followers, but since then, his Facebook likes have grown to more than 1,200 and Instagram has attracted 5,000.

"I want to take this project to the next level here," he said. "This is gonna be a community project. I really want that. When you get other people involved, they get their friends involved. It just grows."

Taking a risk

Last January, Lehn decided to move to Santa Barbara, California, equipped with nothing except a dream of working at a gym near the beach.

When he arrived, he got right to work, approaching 24 Hour Fitness, four blocks from the beach. His passion secured him a job.

Lehn's hope was that his drive and courage would inspire others to take control of their lives, even if a risk is involved.

"The most important thing that I learned was to live uncomfortably because once I got comfortable, things didn't change," he said.

While in Santa Barbara, Lehn continued The 820 Project, sharing his experiences with people back home while also reaching out to the youth in Santa Barbara.

Two weeks into his job, Lehn learned something that rocked his world. The address of 24 Hour Fitness was 820 State Street.

"That's not coincidence," he said. "It blew my mind. It felt like I was supposed to come here."

After 11 months in California, Lehn knew it was time to move back to Alexandria, buckle down and pour everything into The 820 Project.

"Alexandria is a part of who I am. That's where this started out," he said. "The 820 Project was meant for the people around here, not that it's not for anybody else, but this is the core of where I wanted it to impact the most."

Fighting depression

At the beginning of 2017, two suicides by friends in the area impacted Lehn and led him to focus his movement more on depression. Residents may not even know it, Lehn said, but youth are down and depressed, and his solution is to help give their life direction.

"Depression is a serious thing. You can't necessarily fix it, but you can prevent it," he said. "If someone's been in that rut for too long, you can set examples, you can live in a certain way, teach kids to live a positive lifestyle. I want to be that change."

The desire to put a stop to suicide and depression has fueled his drive, even more so when he hears success stories of those impacted by The 820 Project.

For those who don't have anyone to talk to, for those who are struggling, Lehn said that's where The 820 Project steps in as a safe house. It acknowledges accomplishments and provides a place where people can be heard.

"I think the most important thing I learned in all of 2016 is the power of friendship and being there as a listening ear," Lehn said. "You never know. It could take 10 minutes to save somebody's life, to change their life. I think so many people look past that. Ten minutes is like 1 percent of your day where you can apply that to somebody else."

Looking to the future

"Right now is a very fragile and powerful time to implement this (The 820 Project) because it only takes one suicide or one bad thing to happen and it can impact the whole community," Lehn said. "Negativity spreads so fast on social media. I don't know if people look forward to seeing that — I don't want to say that they do — but for some reason, you hear one bad thing and everybody knows it. You hear one positive thing and a quarter of the people might know it. Why not change that around?"

To do that, Lehn's goal is to tap into the world of public speaking, to get out and interact with people face to face.

High schools, alcoholics anonymous meetings, juveniles with troubled pasts — these are some of the places where Lehn believes he could make the biggest impact as a speaker, to introduce positivity and help them get their lives on track.

Until those opportunities arise, Lehn is continuously creating new and original content for his social media pages. He also developed a website, The820Project.com, on which he encourages health and fitness, as he believes that healthy living keeps youth out of bad scenarios.

To help fund his growing venture, he plans to introduce a clothing line with T-shirts, sweatshirts and more, created with his own photography and phrases.

One such phrase that has become the project's mantra is "Hold the vision. Trust the process."

"If you have a dream, if you have something you want to do, just trust yourself that you're going to make the right choices in getting there," Lehn said.