WOODSTOCK – Lou Ness’ friends got excited one day when they thought up this idea: instead of Lou walking alone, they’d all hop on their bikes and cycle to Washington, D.C.
Ness hates walking, so this, of course, was the more appealing option. She’d have been all for it if it didn’t destroy the point – the metaphor behind her impending 750-mile trek, which she’s named “Hear Our Cry.”
Ness told them no. This isn’t about her own enjoyment.
“People say, ‘Well Lou, how do you think we’re supposed to end poverty?’ ” said the 65-year-old, tucked into a Woodstock coffee shop for what is her first in-depth interview with the Northwest Herald since a public firing from the domestic violence victim nonprofit Turning Point in 2004.
“One step at a time.”
• • •
The journey will start on April Fools’ Day, on foot. Along twisting country roads and congested thoroughfares and through cities and suburbs and small towns, Ness will just ... walk.
She’ll push a cart with clothes and foods. She’ll tow a tent, in case no church is near or willing to house her along her path.
A veteran, she’ll check in with several Veterans Affairs stations along the way to receive treatment for her condition, chronic cyclical neutropenia – an ailment that, in a cycle, leaves her deficient of white blood cells needed to fight infection.
The stats, in review: Ness is 65 years old. She plans to walk 15 miles a day for – at minimum – six straight weeks. She has a blood disorder that leaves her vulnerable to infection.
Her doctor, she said, jokes that she needs a psychiatric consult. Her friends, too, raised initial concerns.
“But they sort of get that I live my life,” she said.
• • •
Ness has only become more free-spirited since she was let go by Turning Point, she says – an episode that changed her both personally and professionally.
In on Turning Point from its beginnings in the early 1980s, Ness was fired in April 2004 when, in the midst of the agency’s financial struggles to open its new Woodstock shelter, an audit raised questions about Ness’ management of funds.
She maintains today those allegations are unfounded, and that she was made a public front for problems that went beyond her.
“For however it fell apart, it doesn’t matter, does it?” she said. “It was on my watch.”
Still, Ness looks back today and sees things she would have done differently. She said she wouldn’t have put off firing an official whose actions she questioned, and would have been more direct with a board she felt was slacking even before problems emerged publicly.
Ness said she has yet to find the “reconciliation” she seeks between herself and the agency she helped build.
Turning Point officials declined to comment for this story.
“Turning Point has a compelling mission,” Ness said. “No matter how much distance they want to put from me or whatever, there are remarkable women and men that built that agency.”
• • •
Ness said she won’t make the same mistakes in her capacity as executive director for Shelter Care – a Rockford-based social service agency that is sponsoring Ness’ walk.
“I’m very different in this job,” Ness said. “My leadership team, they’re so capable. They can run that place without me. I’ve made sure I have good, strong, sturdy people in leadership in that agency.”
In the initial stages after her dismissal from Turning Point, Ness didn’t leave her home.
“I don’t think I went outside the door for months,” she said. “I couldn’t face people.”
Eventually, she started her own consulting firm and says she found a happiness in working for herself. She thought she was done with more public work when she was approached by Shelter Care to serve in a temporary consultant role.
Rockford’s issues grabbed her heart, she said.
Ness, conflicted about leaving what she says had become a happier and quieter life, took the executive director position in September of 2010.
• • •
So how does one decide one day to walk across the country?
“I did not decide one day,” Ness said, laughing. “First of all, let’s clear that up.”
One day in her car, nearly broken by frustrations from stingy donors and a society quick to complain and slow to act, Ness heard a voice, she says.
The voice sounded like her own. She believes it was God’s.
At first, she thought she made it up. But she hates walking, she reasoned, so why would she make it up?
“When I would hear it over and over, it would feel like my heart had been pierced,” she said. “All I could do was cry.”
Ness told her co-workers and friends, her doctor, her church.
It was “shocking,” said Pam Hillenbrand, Shelter Care board president and Ness’ walk coordinator.
“But I know Lou,” Hillenbrand continued. “She’s passionate about our need to step up and address poverty. It’s not about helping the poor. It’s about raising everyone’s awareness so that we recognize what causes, what creates and what maintains areas of poverty in our communities.”
Shedding light on such topics can be tough, Hillenbrand said, because such thinking forces people to take responsibility rather than place blame on individuals for their own poverty.
To Ness, getting people to take ownership of the fact that structures in place for generations are responsible for poverty – in effect, changing the way we talk about the poor – is maybe the biggest goal of her walk.
“We have to stop talking about people like they’re garbage and start talking about people like they’re human beings,” she said.
• • •
For a trip less than a week from launching, Ness’ is one still overflowing with variables.
Hillenbrand has lined up churches for Ness to stay at through Chicago. She’s worked with Triple A to set up a walking path to the nation’s capital, but both say it’s subject to change.
If Ness happens to get blisters or a cut and ends up with an infection, she said she will just stop and heal, then continue.
“I trust people, I do,” Ness said. “People want to be inspired. People are excited about this walk. They’re excited. They like having a different conversation about creating something rather than blaming something.”
Ness will get married in June when the gay marriage law goes live in McHenry County – a step she sees as legal protection more than legitimizing the relationship she has with her partner of nearly 25 years.
She says she still hasn’t stepped foot in the Turning Point facility that was so central in her firing 10 years ago.
She’ll walk through Woodstock, where she still lives, during her trek.
“Coming through McHenry County is kind of like a pilgrimage,” she said. “I have been uninvolved in this county for a long, long, long, long time.”