Christians in Action founder and minister Don Walker of Paris remembers growing up during an era when homeless men rode the rails and walked the roadways, going from place to place and picking up odd jobs along the way.
The typically homeless travelers left a lasting impression on Walker.
“Back when I was a boy, 5 or 6 years old, they called them ‘hobos and tramps,’” he said. “They would walk up to the back door (of a home) and ask, ‘Ma’am, you got some work I can do for a meal?’”
In return for chopping wood, fixing fences, mowing the grass and other chores, the traveler would get to sleep in the chicken shed out the back of the house.
Oftentimes, the makeshift arrangement lasted a couple of days or longer.
“Next thing you know, they have gone on down the road somewhere,” Walker said.
Before they left the area, the traveler would mark (leave a coded message) on the house or street corner letting other “hobos and tramps” know who was willing to swap a meal and place to stay for work.
“F meant friendly,” Walker said. “They always wanted to help out. They didn’t want it for nothing.”
A Dream Realized
In the early 1980s, Walker founded Christians in Action.
“I was a plumber,” he said. “I had a storefront. It was just a place with a phone.”
In between calls one day, he was thinking about what he could do to help the community.
The answer? Help the homeless.
“It came to me all of a sudden,” Walker said, “I’m gonna give God the credit.”
The effort had a modest start but quickly grew.
First, Walker put up a clothes rack and before long someone donated clothing.
“Before you knew it that whole building was full of clothes,” he said.
Later on, a couple of churches in town asked him to put together food sacks for the homeless.
“Guys started coming who were hungry,” he said.
Eventually, some of the men started staying in his backyard.
Then the organization’s projects expanded into providing Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, as well as operating a shelter for homeless men.
“The whole community is involved in it,” Walker said, noting area churches, the hospital, police and fire departments are among those who have supported the organization’s work.
Just as in that bygone era, the men at the Christians in Action shelter also choose to do their part.
“The men in the shelter do the work around there,” Walker said.
They sort through used toys that are dropped off at the shelter throughout the year, and clean them up and make repairs before they are given to children in need at Christmastime.
Melissa Wickersham grew up witnessing Walker’s good deeds and she now serves as the organization’s program coordinator.
“When Don started, my grandparents supported him,” she said, “like helping him find a place for the shelter.”
Later, Wickersham became a volunteer.
“At 16, they wanted me to help him to understand how blessed I was,” she said.
Now 48, she continues to help the organization meet its goals.
During the holiday season, Wickersham coordinators efforts to provide food, some cold-weather clothing and toys to people who lead transient lives and those who are having a hard time making ends meet.
Hundreds of people depend on the organization for their Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
Recipients are often treated to hearty soups, such as beef stew, Santa Fe Stew, potato soup, as well as sandwiches with all the trimmings. Pecan and pumpkin pies, and tea and coffee are also offered.
This past Thanksgiving, more than 800 plates were served.
Wickersham credited Paris Regional Medical Center for providing food and several others for supporting the organization’s efforts, such as the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots, the local food pantry, Paris Coffee Co. and Taco Delite.
In addition to the meals, attendees were given socks, gloves, hats, scarves and blankets.
With Christmas drawing near, volunteers are preparing to host another meal and toy giveaway. The event will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec 20 at the Farmers Market downtown.
Organizers expect to feed between 375 to 450 people, but wouldn’t be surprised if the final number were higher. Children will be given tickets that can be exchanged for gently used toys located at several tables. There will also be goodie bags containing such treats as cocoa, peppermint sticks, marshmallows and Hershey Kisses.
There is no rainout location.
Those wishing to help out are welcome. Volunteers are always needed, Wickersham said.
Anyone wishing to make a donation — monetary or otherwise — is welcome to do so.
Toys may be dropped off at the shelter on 248 2nd St. SW in Paris.
Christians in Action is a nonprofit, tax deductible organization.