By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
He experienced three murders by the time he was eight.
His mother was in and out of prison constantly.
He was in and out of the foster care system for seven years.
He was left in a parking lot at age 13 with nowhere to go and nobody to help him.
He was homeless and hungry with no future ahead of him.
But believe it or not, this is a story about triumph.
And it’s a story that will be shared at the Effingham Performance Center on Saturday, April 21.
Many people have heard of Jimmy Wayne, the country music star. But few know about his life’s journey.
Wayne will share both his music and his story at a special concert, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. The Effingham Unit 40 Mentoring Program and CASA have partnered to bring this special program to the EPC.
Tickets are $27 and can be purchased at ticketmaster.com or the EPC box office. Tickets can also be reserved by calling the CASA office at 217-342-2266 or the Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation office at 217-342-4988.
All proceeds from the concert will go to the Unit 40 Mentoring Program and CASA.
Today, Jimmy Wayne is a singer, songwriter and author.
But for the first 16 years of his life, he was the product of a dysfunctional, abusive and criminal home life.
Jimmy was born in North Carolina. Because of a mother imprisoned multiple times, he first went into the foster care system when he was 9 years old. But because of his troubled youth, he was in and out of foster homes.
“I went from foster homes to friends’ homes to strangers’ homes. I was couch surfing,” he recalled. “But that’s the life I knew. I found out there are some foster parents out there doing it for the wrong reasons. Those were not good experiences.
“There are also some great foster parents and others that don’t realize what they’re getting into,” Jimmy added. “Some think it’s like getting a puppy. But it’s not that way at all. Foster kids generally come with a lot of baggage.”
When Jimmy was 13, his mother, who had just gotten out of prison, got involved with a bad man.
“He shot my brother’s wife in the back,” Jimmy noted. “He then took me and mom and started running from the law.”
The three of them traveled from North Carolina to Oklahoma to Texas and then to Florida, sleeping in the car the entire way.
When they reached Pensacola, they pulled over in a parking lot at 1 a.m. They told Jimmy to get out and then drove away.
He cried and was scared, but somehow managed to get back to North Carolina and was reinstated into the foster care system. But in 1989, Jimmy Wayne was on his own.
“Back then, in North Carolina, you could be on your own when you were 16,” Jimmy explained. “I was fed up with the system and felt I could do better on my own.”
But he didn’t experience better. He was homeless, living on the streets. He was always hungry and asking people for food.
“I was just surviving,” he admitted. “It was all about survival.”
But he did have a good work ethic, and one day when looking for work, he walked into a wood shop that ultimately changed his life.
That’s where he met Russell and Bea Costner. After doing lawn work and odd jobs for them during the summer, the elderly couple invited Jimmy to move in with them.
“That saved my life,” Jimmy admitted.
Wayne said Russell was a World War II veteran that was strict, firm, fair and consistent. He said Bea was a strong Christian woman.
“They were great people that accepted me exactly as I was – a dirty, homeless kid that had long hair and wore the same clothes all the time,” he remembered. “Russell was a man of integrity. He was the first man I ever trusted.”
Jimmy went on to graduate from high school and earned a degree in criminal justice from a local community college. He then worked at a state prison for four years.
But how did music become a part of his story?
He owes that to a prisoner.
“When I was in high school, a prisoner visited our school as part of the Think Smart Program,” Jimmy recalled. “He talked to the kids, but he also played a guitar and sang a song. Right then and there, I knew I wanted to do that. I went out that weekend and bought a guitar.”
And after talking with the prison warden many times, he was finally allowed to meet with the prisoner – Jody Lee Hagar – who taught Jimmy how to play that guitar.
“I just knew in my heart what I was going to do and it all started with a prisoner,” he said.
Jimmy moved to Nashville in 1998. In 2003 he released “Stay Gone.” That ended up being the No. 3 country hit for three straight weeks.
“That’s the song that brought me to the dance,” he admitted.
Since then, he has had multiple top 10 hits, including “Do You Believe Me Now?” that reached No. 1.
But there is more that drives Jimmy Wayne than just his music. He wanted to bring awareness to the foster care program.
“I had just returned from a major tour, I had a No. 1 song and had a couple months off,” he remembered. “But I knew it was time to do something more. I was standing at my sink when a voice told me I needed to walk halfway across America. It was a conviction that I couldn’t shake.”
So Jimmy put on his walking shoes and started on a 1,700-mile trek from Nashville to Phoenix. It was during that walk he was contacted by CASA and ended up being a spokesman for that organization.
“When I found what that group was about and what those volunteers were accomplishing, I wanted to be a part of that,” he admitted.
When he returned home from, that voice by the sink was waiting for him again.
“That’s my thinking spot near the coffee pot,” he said with a laugh.
But this time, that voice was telling him it was time to tell his story.
“I started writing 12 hours a day for nearly four months,” Jimmy said. “I wrote down everything I could remember. When I finished making my notes, I had about 1,700 pages.”
He then started posting some of that on Facebook, which resulted in a phone call from a friend, asking Jimmy to be part of a program. After telling his story there, people from Harper Collins Publishing Company offered him a book deal.
About 15 months later, “Walk to Beautiful: The Power of Love and a Homeless Kid Who Found the Way,” was released in October 2014. More than 100,000 copies were sold within 18 months.
It was that book that started the thought process of bringing Jimmy Wayne to Effingham.
“I’m not really a book reader, but I read it and was intrigued,” said Mark Steppe, vice president of the advisory board for the Unit 40 Mentoring Program. “Then my wife read it and several board members read it. My wife bought 70 or 80 of the books and gave them to family and friends to read and it just blossomed from there.
“I didn’t really know who Jimmy Wayne was until I read his book,” Steppe added. “Reading his story just about crushes you. To go from where he was to the fame he has today? That’s a storybook life.”
Wayne is also an advocate for extending the age limit for foster care to 21. He has been instrumental in getting that changed in three states – North Carolina, California and Tennessee.
“There are 30,000 kids that age (16) out of foster care every year,” he explained. “Many of them end up homeless, on drugs or dead. Extending that age limit will really help some of those kids. I’ve campaigned in other states, but as of right now, there’s still about half the states that haven’t got on board yet.”
He is currently on a 10-day trip to Russia as part of the Orphan Outreach Mission program.
Jimmy is looking forward to his first visit to Effingham.
“I had never heard of Effingham, but I’m excited,” he said. “I love small towns. They’re jewels. They remind me of home.”
He’s also looking forward to sharing his story. He said the concert will be a combination of music and message.
“Even when I was a kid, in my mind I always saw myself as being successful,” he noted. “I always believed my situation was only temporary. But when you’re down like I was, there’s nowhere else to go but up. So I’ve tried real hard to just keep going up and never looking back.”
Steppe is equally as excited about the concert.
“The community support so far has been overwhelming,” he noted. “This is a loving, caring, sharing community like no other. I’m hopeful that we can fill the EPC that night.
“If we can bring awareness to foster care and the homeless or help change just a few lives, we’ve done our part with this program. I think it’s going to be a great concert with a terrific message.”