April 16, 2010 at 12:31 pm , by Ron Kelly
Riding high on the success of his first number-one song, 2008’s “Do You Believe Me Now?”, Jimmy Wayne was having a great 2009. He had a new CD, Sara Smile, about to drop in November, and he was touring as the opening act on the Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley tour. He even got to play Madison Square Garden the week of his birthday. I had the good fortune of being there when he was surprised backstage with a birthday cake commissioned by some top-tier fans and baked by TLC’s the Cake Boss. (Yes, I had a slice. It was an offer—and a cake—I couldn’t refuse.)
Come Christmastime, though, the singer was feeling the weight of his good fortune. “I started to think about where I’d come from, remembering all the times I’d lived outside in the cold and slept on the ground,” says Wayne, who had an abusive childhood and spent years as a homeless teen, shuffling in and out of foster homes. “I had a little bit of guilt. When you come from that background, you never want to walk away from it. You always want to do as much as possible to give back. And I started thinking that I really hadn’t done anything significant in 2009 that really helped to give back.”
Cut to January 1, 2010. Wayne laced up and launched his Project Meet Me Halfway walk, an effort to call attention to the plight of kids in the foster care system—especially those who “age out,” meaning they’re cut off from foster care funding and health insurance. In some states, that’s at the age of 18 and, all too often, these kids end up homeless. Choosing two foster care organizations he’s done a lot of work with through the years as starting and end points, Wayne departed from the parking lot of Nashville’s Monroe Harding on his way to Phoenix’s HomeBase Youth Services, and is still en route. Yes, that’s a planned 1,700-mile walk, started in the dead of winter. Yes, he knows it’s kinda crazy and, yes, he’s had doubts along the way. But, at posting time, he’s logged more than 1,000 miles and even survived his first rattlesnake encounter near the Texas-New Mexico border (pictured).
You can keep track on exactly where Wayne is on his Meet Me Halfway website (in case you want to head out to meet him and offer some support), as well as find links to donate to both Monroe Harding and HomeBase Youth Services. You can even check out some live webcasts that Jimmy does from the road on the site too.
I chatted with Wayne right around his arrival in Amarillo, Texas—roughly the midpoint of his journey. He brought me up to speed on the inspiration for the walk, his personal history with foster care, and how you can help spread the word and help the cause. All that, after the jump.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while growing up in and out of the foster care system?
I had to figure out how to make money without selling drugs, cause all my friends were selling drugs. So I’d go to the grocery store for old people, and they would give me two bucks to go buy a gallon of milk, and then they’d give me the change left over. Or I’d pick blackberries for a guy down the road who made wine. That’s how I made money and how I made enough money to send to my mom when she was in prison. I’ve always been a worker.
Tell me about the couple who eventually took you in when you were 16.
[Beatrice and Russell Costner] took me into their home and about 4 or 5 days after I moved in, Russell wanted to have a talk. I knew he was going to make me leave because that’s what happens. That’s what had happened so many times before. The best way to describe Russell is if you take Andy Griffith and Clint Eastwood in the movie Gran Torino, and put ’em together. He was a very small guy, a military guy. He had a heart of gold, but you didn’t want to cross paths with him. He told me, “If you’re gonna stay here, there’s two things you gotta do: You gotta cut off all of your hair just like mine, and you have to go to church. If you don’t, you gotta leave now.” I stayed there six years, and that changed my life.
What was your secret to your success, having had so many disadvantages?
Definitely staying out of trouble and away from the bad guys. I stayed away from all the crime, all the drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t party. I didn’t socialize very much. I was a quiet guy. That was the key that led me to focusing on a hobby, which was music. I focused and I didn’t let anything get in my way. The main thing that allowed me to do all that was the fact that I had a home. I had a foundation, a launching pad—someone that allowed me to do that. It’s hard to focus when you’re shuffling around from home to home.
So the idea for the Meet Me Halfway walk came to you around Christmas? Take me through that.
I was gazing at my thermostat and just thinking about how fortunate I was to have a home and my own thermostat. I could turn it up and down whenever I like. Had it not been for [the Costners], I wouldn’t be where I’m at. And I wouldn’t have that thermostat. I wouldn’t have this home. And it all happened in about four minutes. I thought, I need to do something. I need to sleep on the streets of Nashville tonight and try to raise some awareness. And then I got to thinking that no one’s gonna care about that. I needed to do something on a grand scale.
What’s your main goal in doing the walk?
I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m just trying to get the word out there because what good is a gift, if you don’t give it back? I’ve been given the gift of experience, and I feel like if I just hoard that experience and don’t share it, give it back or pay it forward, that’s a waste. If you’ve got all this experience in life and you don’t share it with anybody, what are you doing? You can help many people. If you choose not to do that, it’s a shame. It’s a crying shame.
Lots of people come out and support you on your walk. Anyone in particular touch you?
[Eighteen-year-old] Gabe. He was smart, he was very articulate—a very go-getting type of guy. He rounded up seven other kids in the neighborhood [in Caddo Gap, Arkansas] and had them come out and walk with me. What I found out is Gabe was needing a home and Marcie Horn [the local lunchroom lady] had taken him in. I asked him, “Why can’t you go home and stay with your mom?” He said she lives in a camper and the power was turned off. He said, “We heat with a propane tank inside, and we cook with a propane tank inside.” And I remember those days. I gave him a cross that was hanging on my backpack that he really liked. He liked it a lot. So I gave it to him, which started something. It started a little trend where people now are giving me their necklaces and I’m gonna give them to the homeless kids when I get to Phoenix. A guy today just stopped and gave me a cross off of his neck. I’m taking all these crosses that people give me and I’m taking them to Phoenix. A lady came up to me the other day and said that this particular necklace, she had bought it for her boyfriend and shortly afterwards, he’d gotten cancer and passed away. That necklace was his and it meant a lot to her, but she gave it to me to give to the kids. That’s good stuff, man.
What can people at home do to help? What do these foster care groups need?Definitely funds. These organizations need money to keep the doors open. And I suggest people call. Find out the sizes of the kids. There’s all kinds of shapes and sizes of kids that are there. These kids are going to job interviews and they want to look good. And instead of just taking your clothes down to a store that’s gonna resell them at a price these people can’t afford, why not just give the clothes to Monroe Harding or somewhere and let them give them to the kids?
Finally, any guilty pleasures/requests for anything people coming out to meet you on the road could bring you?
I love coffee, so it’s a Coffee-Mate. The Hazelnut Coffee-Mate liquid. If it’s powdered, I can’t use it. It makes my stomach hurt. So if you really want to help me, bring that!
Are you a fan of Wayne’s music, his walk, or both? Let us know. And share the details of any cool meetings you might have had with him if you made a point to visit him out on the road. We’d love to hear them!
Monroe Harding photo: Natalie Kilgore
Categories: Do Good, Entertainment, Family, Home, Ladies' Lounge, Relationships | Tags: country music, Do Good, foster care, HomeBase Youth Services, Jimmy Wayne, Meet Me Halfway, Monroe Harding | 141 Comments
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