CROTON – Deb Dingus woke up at 4:15 a.m. Tuesday morning to thunder, lightening and hail.
She was able to take shelter inside a church until the storm had passed, but packed up a soggy tent and wet gear — pretty much inevitable when you’re camping outside, in Ohio, in April.
By the time photographer Sara Tobias and I caught up with the United Way executive director at 9 a.m., the only evidence of her early morning wake-up was the cup of coffee she held as she chatted with Mary Ann Arter at her Croton home.
Tuesday marked the 20th day of Dingus’ 50-day journey backpacking around Licking County. Since leaving Newark on April 7, she’s walked on the side of the road and on bike trails, sleeping in parks and outside churches and schools and talking to as many people as possible.
With her journey almost halfway done, Sara and I spent the day with her to get a sense of the project — which Dingus is calling Give Walk Do — intended to inspire people to donate to United Way, walk with Dingus or do their own community service projects. The walk is part of the United Way’s Community Blueprint project to identify key concerns in Licking County. The Advocate is doing a series of stories looking in depth at the topics highlighted in the blueprint.
We left Arter’s house and visited Heartland Bank, the Hartford Library and Ohio Foundation Seeds, before ending the day at the Hartford Fairgrounds. People at every stop asked Dingus the same question.
“Why are you doing this?”
I heard her talk about the project several times throughout the day. But my favorite explanation was the one she shared with the Helping Hands 4-H group at the fairgrounds.
“I want to talk about all the wonderful things that go on in Licking County. There are a lot of people who really care,” she said. “But I’m also letting them know about the issues. All communities have struggles.”
She told them that 1 in 4 local kids live in a home where food insecurity is a major problem. She talked about adults struggling with drug abuse and the 38 babies born addicted to drugs last year in the county.
And she explained that sleeping outside for 50 nights is nothing compared to the estimated 215 people in Licking County who are homeless and don’t have a safe place to go.
Everywhere Dingus went that day, people listened to the statistics and information she shared. But they also wanted to talk about what they are seeing and their worries.
One woman shared that a friend’s family has been affected by addiction. An older man expressed serious concern about the lack of good paying jobs in the area.
Dingus was brought to tears, talking to Faith Barker at the Hartford Library about some of the things she’s seen.
The library, which serves as a community resource center, frequently gives away free clothing, bread and school supplies. It’s completely run by volunteers.
Barker said she knows kids who consistently come to the library hungry. One little boy came to her crying because he didn’t have markers at home to complete a school project.
Their furnace room in the back of the building is filled with school supplies for families who can’t afford them.
“Everyone needs to hear these stories because every community has these issues,” Dingus said.
When we caught up with her, Dingus had already walked more than 220 miles. By the time she’s done, she’ll have completed the longest continuous hike of her life.
She’s living off the items in her backpack, the kindness of people along the way and regular dropoffs of coffee, caramels and Swedish Fish from members of her staff.
Tuesday was the first time she was able to hug her three kids in two weeks.
Even when it’s challenging, meeting people like Barker and her fellow volunteers is the reason she’s doing this project, so she can share those stories with the larger community and bring awareness of how United Way of Licking County can help.
But no organization, included United Way, can tackle our county’s challenges alone. And Dingus said she’s determined to get everyone involved.
“What I believe is that we have a lot of good people in our community and everyone can do something right where they live to make a difference,” she said.
So far, people around the county have been proving her right.
People have stopped her on the side of the road to hand her small donations. Local clubs and organizations have collected money and hosted awareness events. The members of the Helping Hands 4-H Club spent two hours bent over flower beds to make the Hartford Fairgrounds look a little nicer.
And we were just there for day 20. Over the next few weeks, Dingus likely will meet even more people and hear many more stories that she can carry with her long after she hangs up her backpack and goes back to sleeping in a bed, instead of hoping her tent stays dry.
I’m looking forward to hearing more of them as she continues her journey.
To find out more about Deb Dingus’ journey or to read her blog about her experiences, go to unitedwaylc.org. The Advocate will be running daily updates on Dingus’ location and plans each day of her walk in the paper. Information also can be found by going to facebook.com/unitedwaylc or following #givewalkdo50 on social media.
Found in The Newark Advocate May 1, 2016