By Woody Woodrick
When Ben Poor told his parents he wanted to go for a walk this summer, he wasn’t talking about a stroll around the block or a quick high-intensity power walk.
Poor took a loooooong walk. Like 850 miles.
Poor walked from his hometown of New Palestine, Ind., to New Orleans to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief. He left New Palestine, near Indianapolis, June 26 and reached New Orleans Aug. 9.
“It all started a couple of years ago with a mission trip to Oklahoma,” Poor said during a stop in Jackson. “I knew then I wanted to go to New Orleans. Then I went backpacking in
Along the way, Poor relied on the kindness of others for places to stay and many of his meals. A United Methodist, Poor often contacted United Methodist churches along the way for assistance.
“The church is united,” said Poor, 20 and a student at Ball State University. “Everybody (in the United Methodist Church) is connected. They really helped me out. If people helping me couldn’t contact another Methodist church, they called Baptists or Catholics. It’s all about God. It’s unbelievable how he has taken me on this walk.”
Poor’s journey through Mississippi came at the beginning of a heat wave. If actual temperatures weren’t over 100 degrees, the heat index usually was. “It was insane walking in all that heat,” he said. “It really takes a toll on you both mentally and physically. Your body says you can’t go on anymore, but you tell yourself you have to do it.”
New Palestine UMC, where Ben and his parents Mike and Maria Poor are members, got him started on his goal of raising $10,000 by donating $3,000. By the time he reached Jackson, he had raised $3,000 more. As of Aug. 15, Poor had raised $10,830. He said Ball State is allowing him to set up a booth at an event when school starts Aug. 20 to seek more donations.
In the beginning, friend Matt Gillott accompanied Poor to the Indiana state line, but then Poor was by himself for the next several weeks. He carried some clothing in a backpack and brought along books on tape. Most of the time, however, he was simply walking.
Walking 15 to 20 miles per day, he was often sore from the physical exertion. Poor said his plan was to walk about that far each day, and then stop. The key was finding someone willing to pick him up in a vehicle at that point, which was often out on the road. He would rest, eat and get some sleep, and then return to that spot the next day and start walking again. Sometimes he spent the night in the same town two nights in a row but kept moving steadily south.
His original plan for crossing Mississippi was to go through Meridian and walk along U.S. 11 (which roughly parallels I-59) to Hattiesburg and then Picayune. That would have put him in central Mississippi, walking diagonally southwest.
Instead he entered the state a bit farther north at Columbus, went over to the Natchez Trace Parkway at U.S. 82 and then south to Ridgeland, just north of Jackson. During that stretch his parents took a week of vacation and traveled with him through much of Mississippi.
“It gives you a lot of time to think,” Poor said of the walk. “I think about God and keeping safe, my family and friends, sports.”
Upon reaching Jackson, which was farther west than he had intended to go, Poor drove to Hattiesburg and resumed his walk.
While in Jackson, Mike and Maria Poor happened upon the Mississippi Conference office. There they got the assistance of staffers Brenda McGloster and Krystal Bonds, who helped secure places for Ben to stay along the way south.
Maria Poor admitted that for her, Ben’s walk was “a pretty scary undertaking.”
“Most people who do this sort of thing have a support team or others who travel with them,” she said.
“He made it pretty clear we were not going to be able to talk him out of it,” Mike Poor said.
Bonds and McGloster contacted churches along the intended route and connected the Poors with Lumberton United Methodist Church, Poplarville First UMC, Picayune First UMC and the churches of the Picayune Circuit.
In Poplarville, church secretary Diane Weiss took care of the young walker.
“We were thrilled to death that he was doing this. We were open to doing whatever we could for him,” said Weiss. Poplarville was directly affected by the hurricane.
”We gave him a place to stay. We have a bed and breakfast here. The people that run the Blueberry Inn, Richard and Myra Sharp, took him in as their own. Their grandchildren had come to see them, and he just fit right in with them.”
In fact, the Sharps were so impressed with Poor that they refused to charge him for the night’s lodging. Poor described the Sharps and their inn in one word: “Awesome.”
“He was wonderful,” Weiss said. “I took him to lunch and kind of showed him Poplarville. He was tired, I know that. I let him sit at my desk and use my computer to check e-mails and send e-mails, and he appreciated that.”
Weiss also contacted the local paper, which did a story about Ben. Along the way, Poor was interviewed by many local newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. The Weather Channel intended to interview him in New Orleans.
As Weiss sent Poor on his way toward Picayune – where the Rev. David Lowery of First UMC and the Rev. Gloria McKinney of the Picayune Circuit were making ready for him – she said she gave some advice.
“I gave him a few tips about quite a few little stores between here and Picayune,” she said. “I told him he had lots of places to stop and rest in this heat. He could get inside the air conditioning.”
Pedestrians are not allowed on interstate highways, so Poor walked mostly two-lane highways. He recounted only one close call when one car was passing another just as it reached him. He said he had not realized two cars were coming up behind him and had not stepped far enough onto the shoulder.
Poor reached New Orleans on Aug. 9 to a hero’s welcome. A banner welcomed him to the city and a band was playing. “Getting there was such a sense of accomplishment. It was unlike any feeling I’ve ever had.”
Poor spent a few days working in New Orleans, and then returned to New Palestine on Aug. 13.
“I put forth a little bit of effort and time, but it was nothing compared to what the volunteers have done and what the people there have gone through every day since the storm,” he said.
Poor said his walk was a good experience, even spiritually. “When I got about half way there, I realized it wasn’t like ‘I hope God is here.’ I know God was there since he tapped me on the shoulder in Europe. I could feel it all the way down to New Orleans. It means so much to me spiritually.
“I feel like I’ve grown quite a bit.”