Armand Young, 49, is currently making his way back across the country, walking every step of Lincoln Highway from Ground Zero to the Santa Monica Pier. He carries the most signed object in the world, a bamboo pole adorned with American flags. Young calls this the Human Kindness Walk, encouraging everyone he meets to perform an act of kindness within 24 hours of signing one of his many flags.
Young began this walk seven years ago on April 16, 2007, leaving his career as a massage therapist in San Diego. Previously he had helped people in Mexico build houses for their families during weekends, using discarded construction materials. Friends began to ask him when he would do something in the United States, and Young decided he would walk across the country to honor those keeping our country and communities safe.
A former firefighter, Young sold all his possessions in 2007 and started the walk after he was inspired by the courageous firefighters who lost their lives in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. He was looking for a positive activity after spending time in prison for burglary, and when the towers fell, he began thinking about a way to honor fallen firefighters, police officers and soldiers. Now Young often stops at churches to tell people about all the kind people he’s met on his journey and that there are probably people living right beside them who could use help. He says he’s helped over 400 families across the country, with everything from filling their pantry to finding them a home to rent.
"If ten businesses would get together in every town and make sure kids had a good place to grow up, this world would be a much better place," said Young. "A kid could grow up and save someone else’s life someday as a paramedic or a firefighter."
People he meets sign a flag in exchange for a promise that they will perform an act of kindness. While in Nevada, Young took photos with local residents at area businesses, and many citizens took the opportunity to sign one of the many American flags he carries. Across the nation, promises have ranged from giving someone a ride to work to stopping abuse of a spouse. Young has collected over 500,000 signatures so far and hopes to have one million by the time he returns to the Santa Monica Pier. During his time in Nevada, a needed day off from walking, several citizens signed his flags and a member of the Nevada Fire Department treated Young to a hotel room one night; he stayed his second night here in the Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast.
Young’s back shows the callus where his 60-pound pole rests as he walks the route. He tries to cover 20 miles per day in flat terrain like central Iowa, though he does take days off from walking when his body tells him that it’s time. He also returns home to West Virginia during winters, going back home to spend time with his wife.
Along the route Young has been robbed of his patch collection and his cell phone, hit on the arm by a motorist’s rearview mirror and been denigrated for his efforts. Young says these people are by far the minority; most people are supportive of his trek. Over 50,000 people have walked a mile with Young, and he relies on the kindness of ordinary citizens, as well as firefighters and police officers, to give him rides around the towns he walks through and back to the car he uses to haul his patches and changes of clothes. He also has receives support in the form of shoes from Red Wing, business cards he hands out from Staples and even a tent to stay in from Cabela’s. He has been impressed so far on both his eastbound and westbound journeys across the state, with the kindness and encouragement he receives.
"There are a lot of beautiful souls in Iowa," said Young.
While Young’s walk has brought him into contact with dozens of strangers daily, as well as celebrities like Merle Haggard, Oprah Winfrey and even President Obama, his walk has become personal by his own admission. Along with words of encouragement in person and on his Facebook page, Young’s inspiration is a promise he made to his dying mother to complete the walk. His wife is also supportive of his walk, but wishes her husband was home more. Young doesn’t want to put a timetable on his return to the Santa Monica Pier, but he is determined to finish.
"I’ve been through a lot," said Young.
When Young does complete his walk – he says he wants to finish and have a normal life again this year - the bamboo pole and huge collection of flags as well as nearly 5,000 patches and counting will likely be in high demand from museums around the country. The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the September 11 Museum in New York have already expressed interest in displaying the pole and all its flags once Young completes his walk. His one stipulation for where the pole will end up is that the organization will have to keep the giving going somehow.
Young wants to continue his work helping people even after the Human Kindness Walk is finished. He plans to open a mission in California, along with a business connected to it to support that mission.