The problem of child neglect and abuse is personal for country singer Jimmy Wayne.
His mother was in and out of prison, so from age 8, Wayne was in and out of North Carolina's foster-care system. When he was 13, his mom and her fifth husband abandoned him in a Pensacola, Fla., parking lot.
At age 16, he was a homeless high school dropout.
An elderly couple took him in — saved him, he says — and he survived. Now he travels the country as an advocate for agencies, programs and policies that help other kids do the same.
And even if abuse hasn't touched your life, Wayne said Wednesday in Omaha, you, too, should make this problem personal.
“Imagine your own kid being raped,” he said in an interview before giving the keynote speech at a luncheon for Project Harmony, an Omaha nonprofit that works with abuse victims.
People who don't stand up against abuse are just as guilty as the perpetrators, he said.
He said churches, government and individuals all need to do more for children, who don't have influence in society.
“If a child could pay taxes or a tithe, there wouldn't be a need for Project Harmony,” he said. “It's not a religion problem or a political problem, it's a people problem.”
Wayne, 41, is particularly interested in what happens to young people when they age out of foster care, usually at 18. He backs state laws that extend aid for foster children past the teen years.
In his speech, he talked about his 1,700-mile walk from Nashville to Phoenix to highlight that issue. He started on New Year's Day 2010 and thought it would take three months. It took seven.
“Three days into it I still could see my house,” he joked to about 1,200 people at the CenturyLink Center.
He decided to take the journey after an epiphany following an appearance at Madison Square Garden. Relishing that night in his comfortable home, he said, he started to feel overwhelmingly guilty. He had gotten so caught up in his dream of being a superstar that he neglected a childhood promise: “One day when I make it, I'm not going to forget where I came from.”
On his walk, he lived outdoors, taking breaks only for shows. Hardly anyone spoke to him because they thought he was homeless.
“I needed that reality check,” he said.
Though he broke his foot and encountered rattlesnakes, temperature extremes and crazy people, the walk wasn't as difficult as his walk through childhood, he told the crowd.
Before he was abandoned, he had to endure a night in the car with his stepdad on a shooting spree and a trip through several states to elude the law.
When he finally ended up on the streets in his Kings Mountain, N.C., hometown, he said, he did anything to survive — picked up trash, odd jobs. He resisted the temptation to sell drugs.
Then he asked Bea and Russell Costner, who ran a shop making butter churns, if they had any work. He mowed their lawn all that summer, and they eventually asked him to live with them. Russ was 79 and Bea was 74.
When he moved in, he said, “She had a big beautiful smile, and the house smelled like pie and potpourri.”
Russ had two requirements: Wayne had to cut his hair and go to church.
He lived with them for six years, graduating from high school and putting himself through community college.
“They singlehandedly changed every single cell in my body,” he said.
Wayne praised Project Harmony, saying the group provides help for Omaha children like the help he got from the Costners.
On a tour of its offices, he said, “I saw an organization that's filling in the gaps” for kids.