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Closing Words

Snapshots from My Journey to Family

Jimmy Wayne
National CASA Spokesperson

I am proud to be National CASA’s newest spokesperson because I understand the foster care system after being part of it for much of my childhood. Let me show you why else I value CASA volunteers through three glimpses at turning points in my life.

1985: Becoming Homeless

I’ll never forget my 13th summer. I spend a lot of it watching my granddad roll his own cigarettes. So I get this idea. I’ll roll up dried tomato leaves with a few marijuana seeds and sell these joints to the neighborhood potheads. Every other Wednesday, I take my earnings to the convenience store and buy a money order to send to Raleigh State Penitentiary. My mother is serving time there. I think she’ll be very proud and thankful that I’ve worked hard so she can have cigarettes and V05 shampoo in prison. But when she is finally released, she doesn’t even come see me for over a week.

When she does show up, she is with a new man. Tim is a little different from all the other stepdads—at first. Until the night he takes me for a ride down a country back road. He hands me a gun and tells me to load it. I don’t know what to do. I am 13 years old, so I do what I’m told. Then Tim pulls up to a house and unloads the gun into the building. He flees the scene, pulls over on a side road and turns his headlights out. The police fly by. As we sit there, he grows more and more agitated and suddenly punches me in the face—unprovoked. I bleed all over my favorite shirt. Tim then puts the gun against my temple and pulls the trigger. My head turns slightly, just enough for the barrel to slide off and send the bullet through the windshield. I get out of the car and run.

The next night, Tim hands me the gun again. The people he’d fired at have come to our house for revenge. I say, “No, I’m not going to do this.” But he screams at me until I finally load his gun again. And I watch as Tim shoots someone in our yard, who we later learn was left paralyzed.

Tim flees North Carolina, taking me and my mom with him. We live in the car for about two months. Mom rolls up a ball of clothes under her shirt, pretending she’s pregnant to collect money for food and gas. We go all the way to Oklahoma and Texas, staying at rest stops and homeless shelters. One night at about 1:30 a.m., Tim makes a U-turn back toward Pensacola, Florida. I am asleep in the backseat. He wakes me and says, “Get out of the car.” Drowsily, I meet my mom at the trunk. She hands me my clothes and hugs me. She gets back in the car, and they drive away. And they never come back.

I find myself truly homeless for the first time in my life. No one to call, nowhere to go. I am standing in a parking lot in the middle of the night with my bag of clothes. I have to get really strong really fast. I figure it out. The next three years of my life, I live on the streets and in the occasional foster home. I attend 12 schools in two years. I go from being sad to getting mad to trying to be bad.

1988: Finding Family

At 16, I am traveling down the road on a bicycle that I “borrowed.” And I see this elderly man standing in his woodshop. He is cutting dashers for a butter churn, which it turns out he and his wife make and sell. Being hungry, I ask him if there is any work I can do.

Russell Costner introduces himself and says, “You need to ask the boss over there.” He points to his wife, Bea, this little white-haired lady walks over—apron, cotton dress, glasses, sawdust all over her arms. She says, “If you cut grass, come back this afternoon.” I become their lawn boy for the summer, visiting every other week.

One day, Ms. Costner brings me a Coca-Cola and a little donut like she always does. At the rusty old fence under the apple tree, she asks, “Where do you live?” I tell her, “Up the street from here.” I don’t want her to know I am homeless because she might fire me.

She says, “Russell and I have been talking and want to know if you’d be interested in moving into our home.” I don’t have any hope that this will last, but I think, “Hey, I’ll have a few days off the street with a bed to sleep in—why not?”

The fourth day arrives. Russell meets me in the hallway and says, “I need to talk to you about something.” Here we go—I naturally assume he is kicking me out. He says, “Come in here and sit down.” I begin to sweat. “If you’re going to stay here, you’ve got to do two things: cut off all your hair and come to church with us.”

I end up staying with the Costners the rest of the summer and for the next six years. This family single-handedly changes every cell in my body. I would not be here today, let alone have a music career, if it weren’t for Russell and Bea.

1996: Saying Thank You…and Goodbye

Some years later, I do a little show at a school in North Carolina. I am driving Bea back to her house afterward. Russell has already passed away. Being a kid in the system, you’re not used to hearing people say they love you. So you’re not used to saying it either. But something tells me to say how much I appreciate everything she’s done for me. I’m driving the car and I mumble, “I love you.” She looks at me with a surprised smile and says, “I love you too!”

“Thanks for everything,” I say. “I wouldn’t have these clothes…I wouldn’t have this car…I wouldn’t have my education—heck, everything I have is because of you.”

We pull up to her house. I walk around the car and help her inside. She stands at the glass storm door, looks at me and says, “Goodbye, Jimmy.”

I say, “I’ll see you in a couple of days.”

She says again, “Goodbye, Jimmy.”

And she starts waving. It’s like I’m already a million miles away. She says it over and over and keeps waving. I wave at her, and she waves at me. I’m backing up the car, waving out the window. I get to the road and keep blowing my horn and waving.

That night I get a call from her daughter. Needless to say, that was the very last conversation Ms. Costner and I ever had. But I had the chance to tell her that I loved her and that I appreciated her before it was too late.

Many of the children served by CASA and GAL volunteer advocates don’t get the chance to tell them how much their help has meant to them. I’m speaking now on behalf of them: They appreciate you and everything you’re doing for them. They may not act like it. Lord knows I didn’t. But I know good and well they do.

2011: Becoming a National Spokesman

From the age of 8 I moved through formal and informal foster care, but I never had a CASA volunteer to give me a hand up. Thank God I finally found the Costners.

Learning about the CASA volunteer movement late in 2010 knocked me out. I had been frustrated to no end that young people are still allowed to age out of foster care without the resources they need. It shouldn’t be possible to be “emancipated” without support. An 18-year-old should not have to go to a homeless shelter or sleep on the couch of a friend. These youth deserve to be treated with respect and to receive the education and medical care they need—and to be made aware of all the help available to them.

It was an incredible feeling to speak at National CASA’s conference back in March. To be surrounded by a huge roomful of people with the same vision to help children. In my career, I've been fortunate to perform on stages like Madison Square Garden and the Grand Ole Opry. But I was just as thankful to be in that hotel banquet room in Chicago speaking to 1,400 people committed to abused children.

I appreciate every single CASA volunteer and supporter. What you’re doing says so much about you. It’s my honor to be associated with the greatest charity organization I know of. God bless you all.

Jimmy Wayne learned about the CASA movement when he was asked by CASA of Orange County to keynote for their annual holiday luncheon in 2010. This November, Howard Books will publish his novella, Paper Angels, inspired by his childhood. Read about Meet Me Halfway, Wayne’s 1,700-mile walk across America last year to raise awareness of the needs of older youth in care, at ProjectMMH.org.


Wayne wrote the following song based on an experience he had in college on a field trip to a juvenile detention center. At the conference, he introduced the song by saying, “I struggled to respond to what this officer was saying—that these kids are trash— because I recognized him all these years later from when he checked me into the detention center on my 15th birthday. I was so scared that I was shaking, but I had to answer him while surrounded by the other students in the class who knew nothing about me.”

Where You’re Going

© 2009 by Jimmy Wayne

When I was in college my class went on a trip
to a place down the road where the county kept delinquent kids.
An old man with a badge said to the class
"In here we have all kinds of trash."
I could not believe what I just heard, at first I wasn't gonna say a word.

It's not where you’ve been, it's where you're going.
It's not who you were back then, it's who you are at this moment.
Kinda like looking at an old photograph, remembering way back when.
It's not where you’ve been, it's where you're going.

I said, "Excuse me, sir. I know you won't remember me.
But try to imagine how I looked when I'd just turned 15.
Defiant, scared and confused, dirty clothes and tattoos, nothing really left to lose.
You see the last door on the right? Sir, that door used to be mine."

We all have a story we can tell.
Some's been lost, some hurt, some of us have been through hell.
Well the past is a ghost, a door that's been closed, the start of a winding road.
And I know without a doubt, that doesn't matter now, cause...

It's not where you’ve been, it's where you're going.
It's not who you were back then, it's who you are at this moment.
Kinda like looking at an old photograph, remembering way back when.
It's not where you’ve been, it's where you're going.





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