She's walked miles for welfare reform

August 25, 1999|By Gregory Kane

KIM DENMARK sat in the lobby of downtown Baltimore's Hilton yesterday, still dressed in her walking togs: orange shorts and a T-shirt covered with an orange top so she can be seen in a car's headlights. She needs the protection. She's walked from Dayton, Ohio, and trudged into Baltimore on Saturday with aching knees, swelling legs and throbbing feet.

She stopped at Druid Hill Park, where Radio One's Stone Soul Picnic was in progress. From there, it was on to the Hilton.

"I'm taking a ... rest," Denmark said of her eight-month journey. "I can feel the difference in one day's rest on my lungs."

Her walk continues Sept. 7, south along U.S. 1 into the nation's capital, where she hopes to meet President Clinton to talk about jobs, welfare, welfare reform, small businesses, minority businesses and the lending practices of some banks.

Jobs are Denmark's career. The 38-year-old black woman opened a temporary agency in a poverty-stricken black neighborhood of Dayton seven years ago. Using money she had saved from her post office job, Denmark sought out businesses, which paid her weekly. Her temp service grew. Soon welfare recipients looking for work swelled Denmark's office. When she left Dayton in January, her business -- Performance Temporary Services -- had about 350 temporary staffers and served 14 nursing homes.

Denmark used the last of her savings to buy two vans to shuttle the temporary workers to the nursing homes and to buy uniforms for her staffers who are certified nurses.

"I had taken a project area and was putting them [residents] to work," Denmark said. "I saw this as a great way to get them off welfare."

She estimated that her small but plucky enterprise got 35 women off welfare rolls last year. Performance also trains temps for jobs.

But the days when Denmark's clients paid her weekly are long gone. Most of the clients are in nursing homes. They pay Denmark as Medicare and Medicare pays them -- every 90 days. She's had to borrow money from friends and relatives to make payroll. Frustrated with the situation, Denmark went to a bank for a small-business loan.

"I was rejected, with no real solid reason why I was rejected," Denmark said.

Oh, one bank proposed a partnership, suggesting that she relocate Performance to downtown Dayton and abandon her shuttle service. She refused. She decided to take her case to the city whence all the talk of welfare reform began: Washington.

"I want to bring [Clinton's] attention to what's going on on a national level," Denmark elaborated. "I don't think it's fair that welfare recipients want to work and every door is shut to them."

If that's the case, Denmark shouldn't just talk to Clinton. She should stick around Washington until Congress reconvenes and then walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and pull up some senators and representatives -- especially the conservatives and Republicans who (rightly, it should be mentioned) advocated welfare reform. They should be the first to see that a business like Performance stays in business. Where were all those Ohio Republicans during Denmark's plight?

Dayton "didn't want to touch the welfare issue," Denmark said of the response she's gotten when she's asked politicians for help. "I was told it was a political issue."

The nation's lawmakers -- and Bill Clinton -- had best be wary of Denmark's determination.

She started her trek Jan. 5 -- in 4 feet of snow. A blizzard hit Dayton as she was scheduled to depart. She walked up Route 35 to Xenia, Ohio, then to Wilberforce, where she and Rose Patton, her publicist, got snowed in at Central State University.

They continued north to Cleveland, and then east through Pennsylvania. Sometimes local folks would join them for a portion of the walk. When they got to Baltimore, Radio One's Cathy Hughes got word of the march and put them up at the Hilton for the break. She also put them on the air to publicize their cause. The response, in both moral and monetary assistance, has been enormous in Washington -- where a support group was formed -- and less so in Baltimore.

"We need Baltimore to respond the way D.C. has," Patton said, adding that she and Denmark need money for food and lodging. The Arandale Elks Lodge of Altoona, Pa., has held a fund-raiser for them.

Those who want to put their money where their mouths are -- especially you conservatives who railed about welfare reform and putting folks on welfare to work -- can call Mandy Martin at 410-285-1023 to inquire about donations. Money also can be sent to Walbrook Junction, P.O. Box 6915, Baltimore 21216. Those wishing to talk to Denmark, the woman with the aching feet, can page her at 888-859-1023 until Sept. 7.

Pub Date: 08/25/99

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