I’ve always been a country music fan. I got my first guitar when I was 10 years old and to this day dream of playing and singing like my idol Merle Haggard. I still get chills when I listen to songs like “Silver Wings” and “Today I Started Loving You Again.” I vividly remember watching the Johnny Cash television show with my father…back before he was “CASH” back when he was simply the “Man in Black.” I still sit in my office or living room, playing my flat top Martin and dream of making it to the big stage some day. I’m certain that day will never come but as an old school country music fan I remain loyal to that genre. That fact led me down a path of discovery which I never could have anticipated.
One day while listening to my favorite morning country music radio program (KNCI 105.1 – The Pat and Tom Show) I heard of a young star Jimmy Wayne, who even though he had reached the goal that I could only dream, had placed his career on hold to bring attention the plight of the homeless teen. Specifically those who were becoming ineligible for the Foster Youth Program at the tender age of 18. Putting one’s career on hold is professional suicide in the recording business, a fickle endeavor where careers are short by design in most cases. None the less, Jimmy Wayne decided to raise awareness by walking as a homeless person from Nashville, Tennessee to Phoenix, Arizona. I began following Jimmy Wayne as he documented his trek via Twitter, describing his experiences while many times embedding his memories of living as a homeless teen into his reports. The fact that a successful young country star would put his career on hold got my attention so…
I decided I’d dig deeper.
In May of 2010 KNCI held a walk to support the Jimmy Wayne “Meet Me Halfway” program. Let me add a side note here on how serious Pat Still and Tom Mailey (of the Pat and Tom Show) are about being involved with the community in the Sacramento area. They are constantly putting hours of their own time in to promote worthy causes. I’ve been fortunate to have known them for few years and I’m constantly learning from their example. The walk was ten miles, and while I could never walk ten miles….I could walk half a mile, climb in my pickup truck…wheeze and drive the next nine and half miles! Of course stopping now and then way to cheer those who could walk ten miles! That walk (uh, drive) changed my life.
The walk began at the “Diogenes Youth Center” and after ten miles concluded at the “Wind Youth Organization” both located in Sacramento, California. Surprisingly enough, a few of the kids from the homeless shelter participated in the walk with us. In the brief amount of time that it took to complete that walk I had the chance to interact with some of the kids along with the shelter counselors. In about fours hours my perception of the homeless teen issue changed drastically. At the final destination (Wind) I asked one of the counselors what kids wanted the most when they arrived at the shelter. Her response was surprising….”clean socks.” You’re a teenager, you are out on your own…and the best you can wish for is clean socks. My heart was touched.
I made a place on my bucket list that at my earliest opportunity I would volunteer with a homeless youth shelter. That opportunity came in early 2012 after my wife Jennifer and I moved to the tiny community of Jacksonville, Oregon just outside Medford. I did some research and found the only shelter in the Medford area was Hearts with a Mission (HWAM), a tiny grass-roots organization on Edwards Street in Medford. I usually talk a great game but when it comes down to it I am extremely shy; making a call to Hearts with a Mission was a huge challenge for me. I finally raised the courage to send Hearts with a Mission an email and soon met with Kevin Lamson, the Director and founder of HWAM. Kevin explained to me that prior to the existence of HWAM, children who found themselves homeless in the Medford area got a tooth-brush, a sleeping bag and a pat on the back. Kevin quit his job, put his faith in God and started the shelter. Kevin currently directs all activity for HWAM which includes 16 beds (8 each for boys and girls), counseling services and protection for homeless kids. When I asked Kevin how he was able to get this project off and running he told me that he “takes no credit for the miracles that happen at HWAM.” When asked what motivates him his response was simple….”if I didn’t step up, who would?” As I was given a tour of the facility I was taken back at the organization, the cleanliness and the emphasis on safety that I found. I discovered that the shelter did a fantastic job providing the staples and that good meals were provided. I saw an opportunity when I noticed that there wasn’t a source for fresh fruit..it seemed like everything came from a can. So, for the better part of 2012, I decided I would drop in at the shelter once sometimes twice a week with a trunk full of fruit and snacks for the kids. My visits were short but what I learned each time I dropped in was priceless. Simply listening to the conversations of the kids staying in the shelter was eye-opening. One day as I was putting my food donations into the cupboard I over heard a conversation between two young teens. These kids, who were no more than thirteen were new to the home. Their conversation ended with..”How did you get here? – “The Medford police brought me here” to which the response was “yeah me too, it sure feels nice to be in a clean bed doesn’t it?” Speaks volumes doesn’t it?
I discovered that the homeless youth (children) problem in the United States is huge. And here’s the thing, people tend to believe that kids become homeless by choice. For some reason there is an impression that when a child is homeless it is his or her fault. Let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. I learned that children become homeless for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes, Mom and Dad (or just Mom…or just Dad) have a drug issue and can’t successfully fulfill their parental responsibilities. Some are in situations where they are being abused, emotionally or physically and have to escape for their own well-being. Sometimes they are simply thrown out of the house…hard to believe but it happens. Sometimes Mom and/or Dad become homeless and simply don’t have the means to put a roof over their child’s head. I learned as well that I had to discard all the stereotypical perceptions that I had of a homeless child. I learned that in very few cases is a homeless kid easy to spot when in fact in most cases they tend to blend in…..they look just like any other kid. I learned that a homeless child wants what every child wants…security…food…someone to care. They want to be happy, to laugh, to cry…to be loved. Hearts With a Mission does a great job with the basic structure that a child needs. They then take it a step farther and add that missing component, that love factor. They have rules that you have to agree to abide by in order to stay in the residence. Things like respect, working to improve yourself, sitting at the dinner table with the rest of your “family” for the evening meal is essential. I like that they emphasize returning the child to a healthy family environment. The world can use more organizations like Hearts.
If you’re an adult and you are homeless, there is a pretty good chance that your being homeless has something to do with the choices that you have made as an adult. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part if you are a homeless adult there is something that you are doing (or not doing) to perpetuate that situation. When you are 10, or 12, or even 16 and you are on the street….the chance is more probable than not your situation is due to the action of some other person…a parent, a step parent, someone other than yourself. In the case of children who age out of the Foster Youth program, consider this. You are 18 years old, you’ve been bounced around from home to home with little more than a roof over your head and if you are lucky meals on the table. Now you find yourself on the street with no source of income, no direction, no guidance..and no hope. The facts are staggering, but these kids simply get swept under the rug and forgotten. These kids end up on the street and more often than not they end up in jail, a waste of beautiful life.
I heard it described once that trying to solve the problem of teen homelessness was like walking on the beach with starfish struggling to get back in the ocean. You can throw one or two back into the ocean but you’ll have little impact and the problem won’t be solved. I would challenge you to tell the starfish that get thrown back that you didn’t make a difference..even if it’s only one or two starfish.
It’s difficult to understand that one person can make such a difference. The Meet Me Halfway Program that Jimmy Wayne (who was once a homeless child himself) started has been extremely effective in successfully raising legislation that lifts the foster child “age out” limit to 21 years rather than the 18 years of age that most states have. That extra three years makes a tremendous difference to the children in those programs who are struggling to make that transition from child to adult. I urge you to get involved…it’s easy…and a little goes a long way.
Thank heavens for people like Jimmy Wayne and Kevin Lamson; organizations like Meet Me Halfway, Hearts with a Mission, Wind and Diogenes. Thank heavens that they are there and more importantly that they care because if they didn’t…..who would?