If You've Got A Problem With That, Go Take A Long Hike

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It's likely that not a day goes by when you don't want to tell someone at the credit union, whether it be a fellow worker or a member, to take a hike. It's just not the sort of thing you want to say to Brenda Davis.

On two occasions now Davis has walked more than 500 miles to visit credit unions across her state-which would be challenge enough if she hailed from Hawaii-but Davis is a Mainer. And for good measure, she took her long walk in November as part of Maine credit unions' extraordinary efforts to fight hunger in the state. Davis' latest effort helped raise more than $14,000 for the cause-but her real goal hasn't been the money, it's been getting the attention of a country transfixed by corporate bigwigs blowing five grand on a shower curtain on the fact that there are a lot of people going hungry.

"This is really an invisible disease in our communities," she observed.

The idea for the hunger hike did not come to Davis-who is executive director of Cross Roads Ministries-in a flash; fittingly, it came a step at time. At the food pantry at which she works she said she encountered people who have to walk up to 20 miles to get to a grocery store. One day she gave a lift to a less-than-fresh-smelling man who was walking five miles to the store. "I realized it would take him all day to get food for his table," she explained. "In rural Maine there is no public transportation. The nearest subway is in Boston."

The next step for Davis came in a meeting with Bill Irwin, a blind man who has hiked the Appalachian Trail. "I told him that one of my goals was to do that," she recalled, "and he said, 'Everyone has an Appalachian Trail. It's just not always from Georgia to Maine.'"

Davis said her initial thought was perhaps a walk through the four poorest counties in Maine, an idea she ran past folks at her credit union, Penobscot County FCU in Old Town. That led to an introduction to the Maine league's Jon Paradise, who has overseen efforts in the state to fight hunger, which in turn led to an offer from the league to make a donation for every credit union Davis walked into.

"Little did I know that there are more than 60 credit unions in Maine," Davis says now of her acceptance of the offer. "He sent me a list. I looked at it and said, 'Let's make it a walking tour.' It's grown from there."

When asked what changes she made from the first tour to the second, Davis quickly cited the agony of de-feet. "I learned to wear better shoes," she answered immediately. "I also learned to plan the visits better geographically, and how to be more visible."

Davis and Maine credit unions certainly got a visibility boost when Gov. John E. Baldacci joined her for part of the walk through Augusta. And others individually and in groups have also tagged along for portions of the walks.

"The object is to raise awareness that there is hunger in every community," said Davis. "We want to build partnerships between the food providers and the people who are raising money."

On her second walk Davis ended up visiting 70 credit unions in 45 Maine communities. Her longest one-day walk was 27 miles, and there was always an escort car within sight of her, trailing along. Some nights she spent in her own home, on others she stayed with friends or occasionally at a motel. Her "prayer" this year is for a small RV.

"It actually gets energizing," she said as she makes plans to walk again this year. "As you talk and walk with people you find we're pretty much the same."

Anyone who has ever walked along any stretch of road, even one you might drive daily, knows the perspective is completely different and you see things you've never noticed before. When I asked Davis what she recalled most from her walk I thought it might be perhaps a close call with a car, Americans' inability to use a trash can, or a particularly bucolic rural, Maine scene. But Davis was true to character when asked what comes to mind first.

"In the middle of the afternoon I saw a man eating out of a trash can," Davis said. "Until you see it, you don't believe it."

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at fdiekmann cujournal.com.

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