More than a decade ago, the story of Waddie Welcome galvanized a community around the cause of helping an elderly disabled man live out his final years the way he wanted, in the neighborhood he loved rather than the nursing home where he was trapped.
It’s a story with important lessons about people – both what they’re capable of and how they should be treated – but as the story ages, it fades, no matter how important its message might be.
“The story is really only a story if it continues to be told,” says Tom Kohler, Executive Director of the organization Citizens Advocacy and co–author of the book Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community.
Kohler and co–author Susan Earl are enlisting support for a campaign to ensure that the story of Waddie Welcome continues to be told.
The idea is something they describe as “grassroots viral,” beginning locally and then expanding around the globe over the next several months with a goal of hosting 5,000 group readings of the book between now and Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2011, the 10–year anniversary of Welcome’s passing.
Waddie Welcome was an unlikely hero. In 1996, he was 82 years old and his body had been ravaged by cerebral palsy.
He could barely speak because of the disease’s effect on the muscles in his mouth and tongue, and he had never learned to read or write. But trapped behind the barriers of the disease was an astutely observant person with tastes, desires and a dream.
“When he looked at you, someone of substance was looking at you in a real way that connected to who you were as a person,” explains Earl. “You saw that you were making assumptions about him... and you started to realize how wrong you were.”
Mr. Welcome’s story began in the Cuyler–Brownsville neighborhood of Savannah in 1914, where he spent his life in the care of his family. When his parents died, he was left in the care of his brother before being placed in a nursing home by Adult Protective Services after a report of possible neglect.
That might have been the final chapter, but his story changed dramatically when he and Kohler met in a Southside Savannah nursing home in the latter part of the 1990s.
At the time, neither man could have expected how fortuitous a meeting that would turn out to be. It would become a catalyst for an unbelievably compassionate response from a truly diverse group of Savannahians who engaged in several years’ worth of efforts to liberate Welcome from nursing home care so that he could return to the life and community he had known since he was a child.
It was after that meeting that the story stopped being Welcome’s and started being that of his Beloved Community, a term first coined by Rev. Jim Lawson, an ideological forefather of the American Civil Rights movement, in the following quote:
“The beloved community is not a utopia, but a place where the barriers between people gradually come down and where the citizens make a constant effort to address even the most difficult problems of ordinary people.”
For Earl, her experience with Welcome forever changed her understanding of Lawson’s idea.
“I knew about the idea from the civil rights movement,” she explains. “I understood what I thought was the political idea of it, but then how many years later, I realized the personal side.”
The book’s Worldwide Read campaign begins Sept. 1 with an event at Armstrong Atlantic, where Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community is part of this year’s Common Read for all incoming freshman.
“For the entire academic year we’re having an interdisciplinary discussion and co–curricular activities about the book,” says Jane Rago, an English professor at AASU who supported making the book part of this year’s program.
“This year we wanted something that was more locally tied,” says Rago. “The book is so unusual and unique in terms of every discipline accessing it...It speaks to every single aspect that we teach here.”
For Kohler, the opportunity to put the book in the hands of students is a crucial part of keeping the story alive, and passing its lessons on to the next generation.
“One of the things that’s great about young people is that sometimes when they connect with something that matters to them at this particular time in their life, that sticks with them, sometimes for decades,” he says.
In honor of the book and the university’s 75th anniversary, Rago is planning a special project for the students in her classes.
“My students are going to be going into Savannah and conducting interviews and compiling some oral histories of Savannah through the residents,” she explains. The project will mimic one done by AASU students 75 years ago.
At the event on the Sept. 1, Kohler and Earl will give a multimedia presentation about their experiences, followed by a discussion. The campaign continues locally with 100 privately hosted readings in homes across the city.
“There will only be one Waddie Welcome,” says Kohler. “But the idea of the Beloved Community is a universal idea, and this way of thinking about that can be replicated thousands of times.”
Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community Presentation
When: Wednesday, Sept. 1, Noon
Where: AASU Student Union, 11935 Abercorn St.
Cost: Free and open to the public
Info: Call Citizen Advocacy, 912-236-5798 or visit waddiewelcome.com