You can talk about the need to end poverty; give a dollar to someone on the street, and feel pity; or you can do something to make a difference. I’m just an average person who believes everyone deserves a home, a living wage, a community. I’m walking across the United States to talk to people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness firsthand, and to raise awareness of the growing problem.
I began my journey of 3,000 miles on July 4, 2009, in Washington. D.C., and I arrived in Los Angeles on August 20th, 2012. Along the way I made stops in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, Wichita, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff and countless other small towns and cities.
Along the way I’ve gotten arrested, survived a tornado, had a run-in with a polar bear (slight dramatization) walked for two weeks on a leg I didn’t know was broken and met so many amazing people.
When I began my journey, I had no idea what I would find. But, deep inside, I was hoping to see what made America tick. I wanted to know what lied within her soul. And I wanted to know what was buried within mine—to know that I was more than a “skinny girl afraid of spiders” as I was called by a newspaper reporter who wrote a story about my travels.
What I found was far different than the stereotypical fat, loud and selfish America we hear so much about. I was humbled by the strength and generosity of the people I met, and inspired by their stories. I will never forget the woman in Kantner, Pa., who took me in for the night and paid for my dinner when she was only earning a meager $5 an hour pay and living in a trailer with no hot water and a leaky roof. Nor will not forget the man in Sturgis, Mich., who told me of his sister’s decline into homelessness and subsequent death on the streets of Kalamazoo as his friend quietly slipped a $50 bill into my hand.
Walking gives me the rare opportunity to talk to people about the struggles they face, about their hopes and dreams, and to share a drink or a laugh. Something changes when a person puts on a backpack. People want to know where you are going and where you have been. They want to know what you have seen; and they want to tell you their stories.
So many days as I walked I have been in awe of the simple pleasures we so often miss as we zoom through life at 65 miles an hour. The quiet sunrises and moments of unexpected beauty, and the smiles and intimate conversations with strangers.
If not for a simple twist of fate, any one of us could fall through the fragile net. Give a stranger a hand, display an act of kindness, and inspire that person to reach within and rise to the challenge.
Jennifer E. Cooper