A talk with Greenfield’s walking man

  • Jeremy Williams of Greenfield has begun 500 miles of walking in the region to promote volunteerism. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/7/2019 7:36:38 AM

GREENFIELD — There must be drivers who pass Jeremy Williams, wearing his yellow jacket plastered with paper letters and waving glittering signs above his head, that think, “There’s some crazy guy.”

Williams knows that, and to him, that’s part of the point. 

Williams, 48, of Greenfield began his 500-mile journey to thank local nonprofits and volunteers on New Year’s Day. He’s trained for months to walk six days a week for 12 to 15 miles — until he hits 500 — holding signs reading “THANK YOU” and “IF YOU VOLUNTEER U-R SUPER.”

And he’s right on track, having walked 60 miles in the first four days in Greenfield, Turners Falls and Northampton, he says. 

For Williams, the walk is a way to thank those who dedicate their time to good causes without receiving any payment — people who have helped him at times.

But it’s also a walk that he gets something out of, too. Sunday morning, Williams laced up his shoes, packed some food, water and a couple of extra pairs of socks and kissed his young daughter goodbye before stepping out onto the sidewalk. His journey is about thanking others, but also about overcoming personal obstacles, like his lifelong shyness. It’s symbolic. 

“I’m a shy person, but when I get out there I flip it around,” Williams said. “This is about thinking positive, doing positive things.”

And it’s been enlightening, Williams said, that he hasn’t been cussed at or yelled at, that nothing has “been thrown out the window like it might have been in the ’80s.” Rather, it’s been a confidence booster. 

“There’s been nothing vulgar,” Williams said. “You’re going to get some people who say, ‘What is he doing? Is he crazy?’ But I didn’t realize how much this means to people who do volunteer.”

“I’m the type of person who, when I was younger, I would care hugely about what people think of me,” he added. “But I’m at the point where I’ve realized sometimes in life you have to do something bigger than yourself.”

Respect for volunteerism

For the most part, the response to Williams’ walks has been positive. As Williams walked through Greenfield neighborhoods Sunday morning, cars beeped at him, the drivers gesturing with thumbs up. Throughout the week, Williams said, at least 10 percent of passersby have honked their horns in approval, and many people have stopped him in his tracks to thank him for what he’s doing. 

One local volunteer who works with the homeless read about Williams in the paper. When she saw him on his walk, she pulled over to talk to him and, despite him holding the “thank-you” signs, didn’t say, ‘You’re welcome,’ but thanked Williams for the recognition.

“She was almost in tears,” Williams said. “She said, ‘I didn’t think I would see you.’”

Williams decision to start walking was a natural one. He has been an active walker and cyclist since a young age, when he fought a bout of depression and weight gain by becoming active, getting a mountain bike and losing 35 pounds in a summer. 

He also has a deep respect for all forms of volunteerism. A former personal care assistant, Williams found himself turning to The Salvation Army on Chapman Street when his work at Summit Ice ended.

The organization provided Christmas gifts for his 9-year-old daughter Lilly, who suffers from spina bifida, as well as food for his family.

“We should celebrate our volunteers,” Williams said, pausing as a car passed to heave his sign above his head and shout, “Thanks!”

Williams’ also views his walk as a way to break into the nonprofit and charity field, and he hopes to start a charity addressing homelessness and drug addiction after his walk is over, preferably in the form of a fundraising bike ride or walk.

As a recovering opioid addict who’s been sober for two years, Williams credits the medicine Suboxone, as well as the support he’s received from his wife, family and others as helping him stay clean. He hopes to start a charity that will support others who have had similar problems. 

“I want to do something for addiction. I’m a recovering addict myself,” Williams said. “My wife didn’t know most of the years I was on it, because, for me, it gave me energy.”

Williams’ sobriety has taught him a few lessons: to get help when it’s needed, and to thank those who do help. The walk ties it all together.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.


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