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United Methodists walk across Alabama for poverty

Jonathan Correia, a volunteer with Alabama Rural Ministry, helps clean up an
elderly woman’s yard in Selma, Ala. A UMNS photos by Barry Simmons.

By Barry Simmons*
July 15, 2009 | SELMA, Ala. (UMNS)

Lisa Pierce expected the sore feet and blisters when she set out to walk 168 miles across Alabama. It was the purple rash that crept up her calves that surprised her.

"Pesticide poisoning," she said, as she dodged traffic along a busy stretch of U.S. 80 just outside Selma. "It's been more of a challenge than what I think I bargained for."

Pierce runs the United Methodist nonprofit Alabama Rural Ministry, which she started more than a decade ago to provide home repairs for families in this poverty-stricken area. Over the years, she has dispatched teams of volunteers throughout the region to re-shingle roofs, clear brush and install plumbing for more than 2,000 homes.

Now in its 11th year, the Auburn-based ARM is struggling in the current economy – like many of those it helps. So Pierce decided to attempt a different kind of fundraiser.

"We just felt like we needed to do something bold and big," she said. "There's moments I think when you have to really not only dare other people but dare yourself."

Pierce settled on an 11-day walk, with a goal of raising $111,000 and promoting greater awareness of poverty housing.

"People who are challenged with low-income houses, they have a lot to deal with," she said. "So to come out and deal with the hot sun and just to think about what families go through, it helps you relate in a certain way that poverty's hard, and this walk is hard."

Building awareness

Pierce began her journey in Tuskegee. Along the way, she was joined by a handful of supporters, including the Rev. Fred Zeigler, who leads Church Street United Methodist Church in Selma.

On this day, with temperatures soaring above 90 degrees, Pierce's group had grown to six, including two teenage girls wearing flip-flops. As they made their way along the highway's shoulder, a car honked.

"Just to call awareness to the need of the folks around here is very important," Zeigler said. "The church is vitally involved in doing that."

Lisa Pierce (front, blue shorts) is joined by a youth group from Dothan, Ala., on the poverty walk along U.S. 80 at Selmont.

Pierce waved, though she wasn't sure if the honk was made in support or disbelief.

"My board of directors have said we're crazy," she said. "People just look at us and go, 'Good luck with that!'"

"Lisa just has a passion about helping people that are less fortunate than she is," said her mom, Denise Merrill. Recently laid off from her own job, Merrill followed her daughter in a support van equipped with ice, water and bedding supplies.

"I'm kind of the cheerleader," she said.

Five days into the walk, with 70 miles behind her, Pierce was surprised by a busload of youth from Dothan United Methodist Church who drove in to join her for several miles.

With an entourage now numbering more than 75, Pierce stood amazed as kids continued filing out of the bus.

"This makes my day right here," she said, smiling. "This makes it really all worthwhile."

Motivated to act

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Even before she'd reached the finish line, Pierce and a few of her supporters took a day off to help clear brush from the neglected house of a woman now living in a nursing home.

"It's actually getting up and doing it," said 23-year-old Jonathan Correia, describing what the experience meant to him as he operated a gas-powered weed trimmer. "Putting your feet to the ground and doing what you say you're going to do."

Pierce exceeded her goal by raising $113,000 for the walk, which ended in Livingston, Ala. Inspired by the experience, said she is already planning another walk next year.

*Simmons is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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