“How it is, isn’t how it has to be – it is simply how it is right now. Your possibilities are as limitless as your dreams.” James Richardson
1985 – Pensacola, Florida: At midnight, 13-year-old Jimmy Wayne Barber sat alone in the bus station. Before leaving with her latest boyfriend, his mother had given him some money. She told him to buy a ticket to his 14-year-old married sister’s house in Gastonia, North Carolina. It wasn’t the first time his mother abandoned him – that had occurred at age three.
Jimmy Wayne was a toddler when his father abandoned the family. His mother had a fifth-grade education, a history of mental illness and a drug and alcohol abuse problem. She had been arrested multiple times for drug misdemeanors and shoplifting. When Jimmy Wayne was nine, his mother was committed to a North Carolina mental hospital. He and his sister were introduced to foster care for the first time.
Jimmy Wayne hated foster care, but at least those short stays provided some stability in his chaotic existence. At age 14, he stuffed his few possessions in a garbage bag and ran away from a foster care home. After being hungry and homeless for a few days, he was back.
Two years later, back on the street, Jimmy Wayne showed up at Bea and Russell Costner’s house in Gastonia. He and asked if he could cut the grass for some food. Bea, age 76, and Russell, age 79, took Jimmy Wayne up on his offer.
Touched by his story, they invited Jimmy Wayne to live with them, and their love changed his life. They bought him his first guitar from the Salvation Army and Jimmy Wayne became the lead singer in a high school rock band. He dreamed of going to Nashville, recording an album and donating the proceeds to children in foster homes.
When Russell Costner died a few months after Jimmy Wayne arrived, he expected Bea to kick him out. But she didn’t. Although Bea disapproved of Jimmy Wayne’s kind of music, she supported his dream. When the band played local gigs, Bea was always on the front row, reading her Bible and praying.
In 1992, Jimmy Wayne enrolled at Gaston College in nearby Dallas, North Carolina. He continued to live at home with Bea while working part-time in a textile mill to help support them. He earned a degree in criminal justice and got a job as a prison corrections officer. When Bea died in 1997, Jimmy Wayne moved to Nashville to chase a dream.
He auditioned as a musician at the Opryland theme park and was turned down. But he got the attention of a music executive with the Opryland Publishing Company. In March 1998, Jimmy Wayne signed a contract for $250 a week to write 18 songs per year while he focused on his music career.
In April 2001, Jimmy Wayne landed a recording deal with Dream Works Music, and his song Love You This Muchclimbed to No. 1 on the country music charts.
On New Year’s Day 2010, Jimmy Wayne set out to walk from the Monroe Harding Foster Care Home in Nashville, Tennessee, to Phoenix, Arizona. His purpose was to raise money for foster care children. He took no money, only a small duffle bag and sleeping bag. He lived like a foster care child – sleeping in homes and accepting food only if offered.
The walk covered 1,700 miles and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. The proceeds were used to help change foster care maximum age – the age at which group homes evict foster children – from 18 to 21 in Tennessee. Later, Jimmy Wayne lobbied the North Carolina legislature to pass a similar law.
Today, singer, songwriter, and author Jimmy Wayne Barber lives in Gastonia, North Carolina. He bought the property where his uncle once let him live in an abandoned trailer with no electricity or running water. His memoir about his life, Walk to Beautiful, is a three-time New York Times bestseller.