Written By: Heather Lee Gordy Photography by Mark Steelman
I walked towards the picnic tables that rest under the gazebo along the riverfront and instantly saw a community of people connecting and sharing a meal. The weather was warm, the sky bright, and the sound of the river offered calmness. There was conversation, there was laughter, there was peace, and there were people caring for one another. This is the work of Walking Tall Wilmington.
Walking Tall is a nonprofit organization seeking to build relationships and gain an understanding of individuals and families experiencing poverty. Their mission focuses on setting a foundation of trust, safety, and empowerment for individuals in poverty, and encourages the community to approach poverty in a way that creates equality. What makes this organization unique is that their work is completely mobile; they build their outreach by meeting individuals and families right where they are in the community.
“It’s a lot of footwork and it’s a lot of going out of our way to seek people in need,” said Randy Evans, Director of Walking Tall. “Whether it be going into camps up around Market Street near Central Drive, or saying that I’m going to be intentional about going downtown for a couple hours and just sit at the bus stop to hang out… whatever the case may be, it’s taking intentional strategic movements.”
Doing this offers a more comfortable environment for individuals who may be experiencing poverty, giving them the option to be in a safe and trusted place, while still receiving help and needed resources. Walking Tall shares meals with individuals facing any level of poverty on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Local restaurants and food trucks such as Promised Land Kitchen, Catch, Ramen A Go Go, and A & M’s Red Food Truck, have shown their support by offering and contributing to community meals.
Chris, an individual experiencing poverty, expressed that before he started going to the group settings offered by Walking Tall, there was nowhere else he liked to go because he was afraid of how people may judge him. When he first met Randy and experienced what Walking Tall offers, he felt different. He saw more people communicating, hanging out, and being themselves. This made him feel more comfortable, and since coming to the weekly meetups, Chris has met more people he can now call friends. He agreed that building these relationships have been important to him.
Randy Evans has worked with nonprofits for the past two years and has been pushing a movement to change the way communities view and respond to poverty. Starting Walking Tall this past April and forming a way to help individuals more widespread was one step closer toward that goal. Another step has been integrating a mindset he believes can change poverty and the way people see and feel about poverty. The big difference in this mindset is a shift in the way people speak, think, and respond to those in poverty. One aspect of this is eliminating the use of the word “homeless.”
Randy explains, “Most people would say, ‘We go downtown by the river to feed lunch to the homeless.’ We would say, ‘We’re going downtown by the river to share a meal with our friends experiencing poverty.’ One grants instant equality, and the other unconsciously creates this barrier.”
Various individuals who gather to take part in sharing a meal with Walking Tall all agreed, this approach made a huge difference in allowing them to feel less judgment. They also expressed how simply creating conversation and taking time to get to know other people have helped them feel more open and connected. Jessie, a regular at the weekly meetups, explained that Walking Tall has become more than a community sharing a meal; they are now family.
When speaking of the gatherings with Walking Tall Jessie said, “It’s very important. It keeps us stronger.”
Another aspect Walking Tall incorporates, is never assuming to know what people need, but rather asking them, engaging in conversation and giving them a choice. Randy shared a story of a friend of his who was in poverty for nine months until he got an apartment. He had a new home and was off the streets, but his health began to rapidly decline.
“His physical, mental, financial, and spiritual health is worse now than it was before,” said Randy. “Now, why is that? He lost his sense of community. He might have been unsheltered, but he had a group of people that he was able to bond with, and now he’s isolated. We don’t have to see these individuals, so they must be okay, but it’s more complex. It’s not one size fits all.”
Randy suggests that perhaps what they need is a friend, a listening ear, someone to tell them they love them, or someone to cry with them. Yes, they need resources, but human connection is just as vital to an individual’s well being.
Randy’s main goal is to spread this movement across the country, and maybe even internationally. He sees a need in expanding to different cities and joining communities together in working to change poverty.
At Walking Tall, success is not measured by how many meals are served, or how many Government grants are received.
“We measure success for how many people put their head up and pull their shoulders back and smile,” said Randy. “We measure success when we see someone in poverty who only has one dollar left, give it to another one of their friends who is also in poverty, because then they’re starting to understand community and they’re starting to understand what family and friends mean.”
Randy ends on a powerful note stating, “You may look at me and say, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m enabling them to feel loved and cared for in a very deep and sacred way. I’m not saying I have the answers, but if anything [I’m showing them] they’re loved. Most people would give just enough to keep someone poor. We’re trying something different and seeing if it works.”
If you’re interested in volunteering and building valuable relationships with individuals experiencing poverty, Randy can be contacted through the Walking Tall Facebook page at www.facebook.com/walkingtallwilmington/.