Sometimes, it’s the little things that can stir a memory — and lead to greater dividends down the road.
Country star Jimmy Wayne recalls mowing the grass for an elderly woman when he was a teenager. For his efforts, she would reward the homeless child with a Coca-Cola. He told that story onstage over the years and also in his HarperCollins autobiography Walk to Beautiful, and then word got back to the soft-drink company. To date, Coca-Cola has donated close to $50,000 to Wayne’s 501C 3 foundation Project Meet Me Halfway, which helps at-risk youth in foster care and those experiencing homelessness.
In addition, the company sold Walk to Beautiful alongside six-packs of Coca-Cola in more than 5,000 retail locations across the country starting this fall, marking the first time that a consumer packaged goods company has partnered with a book title to create a shopper-marketing program in the grocery channel. Wayne said he and Coca-Cola are going to be partnering up on further initiatives in 2016 as well.
His story is one of tragedy, overcoming odds and love. The North Carolina native was abandoned by his father at an early age and weathered a rocky relationship with his mom, who would leave him with friends for months at a time – until, at the age of 13, his mother left him at a bus station not too long after an incident where his stepfather put a gun to the youngster’s head. More than 25 years later, Wayne still remembers those feelings today.
“When we pulled into the parking lot, she kissed me on my face, and you can’t even start to put the amount of abandonment into words,” he recalls. “If you can’t trust your mom, you can’t trust anybody. That’s the way I felt. It was the lowest point, the saddest moment that you can imagine. The only thing that hurt worse was being hungry. Seeing her leave, there was so much betrayal.”
Over the next few years, Wayne would drift between foster homes and the streets. He says that while we as a culture tend to gravitate toward sensationalized stories like his, seeing that way of life up close and personal put things in perspective.
“We all love hearing crime stories, but when you’re seeing all of it go down, it’s crazy. I saw my first murder when I was 7 years old. The guy was in the front seat of the car that I was in, and a guy opened the driver’s side door and hit him with a hatchet. I was in the backseat, and there was blood everywhere. It was just so horrific. I remember the sounds the hatchet made when it hit his body. It would go down to the bone and it would pop. It sounded like when your dad would take a belt and he would pop it.”
Finally, the future singer/songwriter of such hits as “Stay Gone” and the Billboard Hot Country Songs No. 1 “Do You Believe Me Now” was taken in by Russell and Beatrice Costner, a couple who had a deep and profound impact on his life — much to his surprise.
“The fact that I grew up like I did, and had seen everything that I had, I was so surprised when this couple — both in their 70s — took a chance on me. I thought that if this family knew anything about me and where I came from, it wouldn’t work. They let down their guard and took me in their house. They made me get a haircut and go to church, but those were the only rules. He had terminal cancer and died three months after I moved in,” he says, adding that he ended up staying at the home for six years.
Telling his story — including his being molested at a young age — was a source of healing for the singer. “It was very therapeutic. When I was in the sixth grade, Miss Crystal Friday was my teacher. She was the first African-American to teach in the state of North Carolina, and it was a very racially divided area of the Carolinas. She had a hard time, but she didn’t take any guff from anybody. She had a leather strap that she kept in her drawer, and she used it on me once a week when I gave her a hard time. But she also inspired and encouraged me to start writing. I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it weren’t for her. I started writing poems, which led to songs, and then to me writing my story down in chronological order. Just writing the story, and all of the hard-core details about being homeless and all of my experiences, when you put that demon on paper, and you stare at it, it’s a way of saying, ‘You’re not going to control me anymore.’ I’m putting these words down to help people out there who might be going through the same thing. That really helped me shed a lot of that.”
When asked how he made it through the dark times growing up, the singer credited his faith. “It all starts with my spiritual relationship with God. That’s not popular these days and not what people want to hear, but it’s the truth. I had to get to that place in my life where I realized that I could carry a grudge and have all this resentment, but if there was one person who deserves the right to that, it would have been Christ. But he carried a cross and died believing he was dying for our sins. So having that thought in my head, and being able to forgive the people who betrayed me, that’s what it was — the spiritual relationship.”
While he has been able to put his past in perspective — even visiting his mother from time to time — he admits some are not so fortunate. “Kids who grow up in the foster care system are 25 percent more likely to suffer from PTSD than a war veteran. We don’t talk about it, because some feel it’s not important, but those kids spend 18 years in the system. Imagine being abandoned when you’re 7 or 8, and every time you turn around, you’re being pushed around or treated like dirt. That’s a war in itself. You don’t have to be shot at all the time. They come out of that suffering from so much.”
Wayne says he hopes his book can raise awareness for anyone who is traveling down a road similar to his. “I want to see a bill passed in every state in America to extend foster care to at least 21 years old. I would love to see the book turned into a movie and use those resources to build a home for these kids who are about to age out and have no place to go.”
Who would play Wayne? “I think Ryan Gosling would do a great job,” he suggests. “I remember seeing him in The Notebook and thinking that he reminded me of me in a way.”