Kenny Rogers didn’t walk for almost the first five years of his life, but he’s making up for it now and helping worthy causes at the same time.
In 2016, he walked 50 miles from his current home in Stony Brook to Canarsie, Brooklyn, where he grew up, to raise money for the American Cancer Society in honor of a childhood friend who died of lung cancer earlier in the year.
In September, Rogers, 66, will more than quintuple the distance of last year’s feat by walking from Silver Spring, Maryland, back to Long Island, to the Open Door Exchange in Port Jefferson Station, an outreach program of Setauket Presbyterian Church that provides furniture for those in need.
Rogers, a parishioner at the church, started thinking about this latest project after the opening ceremonies of the cancer society walk. As people gathered to support him, the Rev. Kate Jones Calone, executive director of Open Door Exchange, joked, “How are you going to top this?”
“We’ll see,” Rogers replied.
Jones Calone mentioned Open Door Exchange’s need for mattresses — there are currently 117 people on a waitlist — but she had no idea Rogers would seek to do something about it.
Rogers devised a plan to walk from A Wider Circle, an antipoverty group in Maryland that inspired Jones Calone to start Open Door Exchange in 2015 after a church youth mission trip there in 2012, all the way to Open Door Exchange’s 3,000-square-foot warehouse.
“We can donate gently used furniture, but we cannot supply mattresses, and that’s our biggest need,” Rogers said.
Open Door Exchange usually buys twin mattresses and box springs from Big Lots for about $159. “That’s a big expense for a nonprofit that exists solely on donations,” he said.
Jones Calone said she hadn’t thought of providing mattresses before starting Open Door Exchange, but that it quickly became obvious that there was a demand. The group has given away 99 new mattresses so far and served more than 500 families.
277 miles, 277 mattresses
Rogers will begin walking on Sept. 25 and is hoping to raise $22,021 to purchase 277 mattresses or box springs — one item for every mile of the trip. Rogers will drive to Maryland on Sept. 23 after visiting his mother in Florida.
He plans to journey up U.S. Route 1, staying along the way with fellow Presbyterians at other congregations. Rogers plans to be back on Long Island on Oct. 14.
Jones Calone said Rogers’ trek will be tracked via Open Door Exchange’s Facebook page. And Rogers’ effort has won the admiration of the man who started the furniture bank that inspired Open Door Exchange.
“Anything that helps people in poverty is great,” said Mark Bergel, founder and executive director of A Wider Circle. “Poverty is such an insidious social disease, it’s baffling. And I think the commitment like the kind Kenny is doing is what we all ought to be doing because this is such a big crisis.”
A Wider Circle now also provides job training, professional accessories and attire and mentorship to thousands of people annually. It also looks to strengthen entire poverty-stricken communities by having groups collaborate to provide essential services. “All of those things that move people into greater stability and security into their lives was very inspirational to us,” Jones Calone said.
A group of Open Door Exchange volunteers will meet Rogers at A Wider Circle to give him a send-off. Some are planning to walk with him to start the trip and others will stay behind and volunteer that day at A Wider Circle.
A young friend has a special reason for traveling down to Silver Spring next month. Fellow parishioner Eli Kopp will turn 14 on the first day of the walk. Eli has been friends with Rogers since his family moved from Austin, Texas, to Setauket in 2014 and will be walking 14 miles as “a birthday celebration.”
“It’s for a good cause, and I thought it would be nice to just go for it,” said Eli, who will be returning to Paul J. Gelinas Junior High School in Setauket as an eighth-grader in September.
His mother, Gretchen Olson Kopp, said Eli’s participation in the walk is “a beautiful testament to Kenny in a lot of ways . . . that he comes at life — he and [his wife] Arlene both — with this sort of open, joyful, loving, accepting spirit, and that is part of why I think Eli is drawn to do something like this. Because he knows it will be a heck of a lot of fun with Kenny around, and Kenny is such an inspiring guy.”
Open Door’s mission
Open Door Exchange largely helps people transitioning from homelessness, domestic violence shelters and military service, or those who have been displaced after a disaster. Clients are usually referred by a social service agency or other nonprofits, and visits to the brick warehouse are made by appointment on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Every other Saturday, as many as 25 volunteers gather to clean furniture, make minor repairs, assist families in picking out furniture, or go out on furniture pickups, Jones Calone said.
Inside, the building is packed with furniture and organized in sections — sofas, tables, desks, cabinets, bed frames, end tables and coffee tables, housewares and more. Clients can tag whatever they want, free of charge. They have two weeks to pick up items.
“Our biggest thing is that we want things that are donated in good condition,” Jones Calone said, adding that smaller-size dressers are the other item that goes the quickest. “I tell people, ‘If you feel comfortable giving it to your friend, that’s what we want.’ ”
The walk and the mission of Open Door Exchange are meaningful to Rogers on several levels.
First, he is committed to the Setauket Presbyterian Church, which he has attended for 15 years.
The walk is also a physical challenge that many who only knew him as a young child would never have thought possible for him to overcome. Rogers was almost 5 years old before he took his first steps. He wore leg braces at age 4 and missed kindergarten as a result of his condition. It was suggested he had cerebral palsy, but that was later proved false, he said.
“To this day, they really don’t know what was wrong with me,” Rogers said. “I had lazy muscles, I was told.”
A passion for walking
Rogers became strong enough to play baseball and football, but he first developed a fondness for walking with the same friend in whose honor he walked last year.
That friend, Russell Donovan, had “a horrible car accident when he was 8 years old. He ended up with one leg shorter than the other,” Rogers said. “We were two kids that limped that hung out together. We used to walk all over the place. That was our passion: walking.”
After recovering from prostate cancer in 2011, Rogers began walking in earnest again to build his strength.
To train for the mattress fundraiser, Rogers is walking the 3.4-mile Setauket-Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail, both ways, with extra weight loaded in a backpack. Once a week, he does a 12- to 13-mile walk from Stony Brook to Sayville.
It’s all also a cathartic experience.
Before retiring in 2014, Rogers worked in the Suffolk County Department of Social Services fair hearings department and said his job was to say “ ‘No. We can’t give you this. We can’t give you that. We can’t give you furniture.’ . . . So this is something, now that I’m retired, I can say, ‘Yeah, give it to them.’ I can provide the things I could not provide when I was employed by the agency.”
Additionally, he said, social service programs take care of emergency needs, “but when somebody is homeless, or living in a shelter, you put them in the home and you forget the basic needs like furniture. It’s furniture that makes the home.”
Following in the footsteps of A Wider Circle, which has grown far beyond being a furniture bank, Jones Calone envisions having Open Door Exchange provide a wider range of services such as job training, English language training and food assistance by coordinating with the congregation’s soup kitchen. She would also like to expand the nonprofit’s services with an additional base in Nassau.
“We want to be a place that addresses the needs of the community as a whole,” she said.
mat·tress / ma-trəs / noun
1 a : a fabric case filled with resilient material (such as cotton, hair, feathers, foam rubber, or an arrangement of coiled springs) used either alone as a bed or on a bedstead.
That is how Merriam-Webster defines the most-requested item at the Open Door Exchange in Setauket. Those who operate the nonprofit have their own ideas of what a mattress and other home decor means in the lives of those it helps:
- Furniture is an essential for people seeking stability and a better future.
- Furniture allows a family to eat together sitting at a table. It gives children a place to do homework.
- Furniture provides the opportunity to invite guests into one’s home and is necessary for a good night’s sleep.