18 Feb Hermonyone Williams Walker
A Life of Servanthood
Hermonyone Walker is the Pantry Coordinator of the Health Smart Holistic Health Program for Seniors. Health Smart aims to address social isolation, food insecurity, and financial insecurity that negatively impact the health and quality of life of many seniors in Health Zone 1 of Jacksonville, Florida. This program is supported by an investment from the Humana Foundation and is led by Dr. Carolyn M. Tucker at the University of Florida.
Hermonyone Walker was born on August 21st, 1949, at Brewster Hospital (Jacksonville’s first hospital for African Americans). Of the 9 children born to her mother, she was the first one to be born in a hospital. As a young girl, Ms. Walker was frequently seen sweeping several blocks of Orange Street where her parents’ home was located “to be sure people who entered the street were welcomed into a clean environment”. Ms. Walker’s father died when she was only 18 months old. When she was 11 years old, her mother remarried and had a baby boy. Since most of her siblings were much older and some even had families of their own, her mother who worried about maternal mortality bequeathed the responsibility of taking care of her younger brother to her just in case she did not live to see the baby born. Ms Walker took on that responsibility in stride much like she does everything else – she took the duty seriously even at her young age and went on to raise her brother alongside her mother until he reached adulthood.
After graduating from High School in 1967, she left home and moved to Tallahassee to attend Florida A&M University for two years. She soon met and married her forever love Bruce who attended Howard University in D.C. where she transferred to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees! While in D.C. she worked as a home economics teacher at a school for the hearing and speech impaired where she learned American Sign Language. Her husband was in the military and as a result, Ms. Walker shares fond and sometimes not so fond memories of being a black military wife in the 1970s and the roles she was expected to play. Hermonyone returned to Jacksonville when her husband was deployed to be close to family because of high-risk pregnancy status.
As a black elder in our community what are some of the things you have seen that we have done well to address racism in Jacksonville? Do you think we have made progress?
As an African American elder living in Jacksonville, Ms. Walker expresses frustration because “I don’t think they actually see the talent that we have, even when we display positive talent, the words they use are so important” and can either be used to lift people up or to characterize them in a negative life. In her work serving others over the years, she has words such “aggressive” to describe her when she was being assertive. When asked about Black History month, Ms. Walker stated, “this time of year doesn’t make me glad – even though I am happy to see how many people have progressed. My journey has not been easy, because I dared to make a difference in an area where people were already ‘doing the job’ but there was room for improvement.” Ms. Walker was especially concerned about the care of African American seniors in facilities in Jacksonville and noted that “you have voices that are silent [and as a result,] we have a lot of silent suffering. I was amazed as I went through my journey that people who are in a position that could help you did not” even as they watched differential policies that were required for her program based solely on her race. As is her nature, Ms. Walker chooses to forgive the individuals who stood by and watched because “what I learned was this is my mission – to make a difference for the elderly, period.”
While back in Jacksonville, what inspired you to go on your current course?
Ms. Walker’s journey to serve the elderly in Jacksonville was forged when she worked as the social worker for the City of Jacksonville’s nutrition program. She had the responsibility of 13 site and 134 homebound seniors. She noticed the challenges of reaching homebound patients and as a result started implementing strategies that would help. She started carrying a bag in her car with some food because she noticed a lot of times that when she visited the seniors that had not eaten. She went on to work with youth who had not been adjudicated or were considered delinquent. In addition, she also worked with young girls who were pregnant at a hospital to ensure they received the pre and postnatal care they needed to deliver healthy children.
Based on her work experience, her observation of the lack of adequate care for seniors, and her strong faith, Ms. Walker resigned from her hospital job and a close friend resigned from her Federal Government job and together they started Keep Safe – a nonprofit dedicated to serving the elderly and disabled individuals who should not be left home alone. Armed with a team of three which included a nurse, the center provided three hot meals and get their medications administered on time. At Keep Safe, Ms. Walker and her team provided a safe haven for all their clients by creating a warm welcoming space, taking the clients on outings all over Jacksonville and ensuring that they were in engaged in activities every day to keep their minds, bodies and souls engaged. Some of the fun activities they planned included hosting an annual prom for all their clients and made it a huge production.
That is an amazing list of accomplishments! Can you tell us how you went from that to your work with Health-Smart?
Ms. Walker’s life journey prepared her for her “kismet moment” as the coordinator of the Health Smart Pantry Initiative. About seven years ago Dr. Carolyn Tucker, the Program Director for the Health-Smart Initiative, introduced the program to her church. Because of her involvement with the healthcare committee there, she and three others were selected to become Health Empowerment Coaches. She used her previous experiences to make the program fun for participants by cooking and demonstrating healthy activities. Through the program, participating seniors lost weight, learned to pay attention to labels, drink lots of water, and find simple ways to make health the easy choice.
When asked how COVID has impacted the Health Smart Initiative, Ms. Walker stated that “COVID was interesting, it made me claw deeper into the community. We were slow at first, most of our clients don’t use computers they use their phones but basically only to call someone. So, we had to train everybody… We changed the program timeline from 9 weeks to bi-weekly 5-week sessions.” With the impacts of COVID waning in the community, some groups have started meeting in person, but they are still providing virtual get togethers for those still not comfortable meeting face-to-face. With glee and joy in her voice, Ms. Walker credits the success of the program to “meeting the people right where they are and have people that look like them, who share the same experiences as them, running the program in a space where they can pour their hearts out and be very excited about the change they made in their diet.” That is success! In addition to making diet related changes, Health Smart is also “reducing social isolation using an app that was developed in response to COVID for participants to communicate with each other, and to also join in with other seniors in the city through the app. One of the major things on that app is a special area where if you are having problems, you can express what you are going through and have other seniors, or the five medical volunteers respond. That has been a major thing to help reduce isolation.”
“Feeding Northeast Florida is a blessing to the community and has been a major partner in this effort by providing food to program participants!” When asked what she wanted readers to take away about Health Smart, Ms Walker wanted individuals to be health smart by drinking water, reading the labels on cans of food and if they cannot afford fresh vegetables, rinse or prepare the food to still maintain a healthy body as best they can. She encourages seniors especially in Health Zone 1 to participate in the program and for those who have participated to be champions for others by leading a Health Smart lifestyle!