HAMMOND | Armand Young wants to change the negatives of the world into positives, one step at a time, one act of kindness at a time.
The 49-year-old California native began walking across the United States on April 16, 2007, carrying a bamboo flag pole he fashioned from a tree in his San Diego yard to honor those killed on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and members of the military killed in the line of duty.
Since that day, Young has walked America’s ribbon of highways from California to New York and is headed back west meeting hundreds of thousands of people along the way, staying in homes when possible, hotels when necessary, collecting promises from those who sign the flags to do one act of kindness within 24 hours.
“This is my calling. God put this on my heart,” he said Monday as he visited the home of Hammond home of Jean Wells, a friend he met on Facebook a year ago.
“I’ve taken three breaks during those years. The first I got to Plymouth, Ind., and found out my mother was in bad health. I flew back to San Diego and she died,” Young said. Another break came when he met and married his wife, Victoria, and moved to Charlestown, W. Va.
Young said a friend’s question led him to answer God’s call.
A skilled craftsman, Young built homes in Mexico and “made $500 a day by 2 p.m.,” he said.
“I had a nice house. One day I was sitting in my yard in San Diego with friends and one of them asked me 'When are you going to do something in this country?’”
Young said he looked at the bamboo tree in his yard, got out his reciprocating saw, cut off a six-foot pole, mounted an American flag in the top and made a pledge to himself and God that he would change his own life to change the world.
“I sold my home in San Diego, gave away my belongings to my friends and started walking,” he said, smiling at the thought. “I chose to walk the northern route using the Lincoln Highway.”
Since then, Young has collected more than 556,000 signatures on 419 flags. Some 500 of those signatures are celebrities include Oprah Winfrey, Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg and Merle Haggard. More than 40 professional sporting teams have also signed the flags.
“I’m honored to get Merle Haggard’s signature. He doesn’t ever sign anything, and he shook my hand. He doesn’t shake hands with anyone,” Young said of his meeting with the legend.
A silver star also is attached to the flagpole, a gift from Willie Nelson.
All but one of those 419 flags represents a homeless family who has been able to find a home thanks to the help of those Young has met along the way.
“We supply the first and last month’s rent,” he said. “My goal is to get one million kids a home.”
One flag carries the signatures of the firefighters who survived the rescue effort in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
“That’s what keeps me going. No one else signs that flag,” he said. “On the back I have the name of the dog, Hisso, who searched for and found many victims with his handler Bill Sombo. Hisso died from breathing in all the stuff at ground zero.”
Young arrived in New York City on Sept. 3, 2011 to attend the 10th anniversary services held there for victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“I was at ground zero and I met so many families of the victims. Sixty percent of the family members of victims of 9/11 have signed these flags and the flagpole,” he said.
To date, Young has journeyed 7,300 miles, much of it seeing the sights of towns along the way, visiting fire stations and talking with residents. He has received the keys to numerous cities and towns, all of which are displayed on the flagpole that weighs 49 pounds.
Patches from fire departments, military units and federal law enforcement departments also adorn the flagpole.
Before arriving at Wells’ home in Columbia Center, Young visited the Hammond fire station on 173rd Street and was given a Hammond Fire Department patch, one of more than 4,800 he has been given.
“I’ve had military guys who see me walking with the flagpole stop and rip a badge off their uniforms to give me,” Young said.
“I do this for those who lost their lives for this country on 9/11 and in military service,” he said. “Every step I take is for someone who can’t step anymore.”