They were nine corporate funders, executives who help decide where their company's philanthropy goes, walking the same route hundreds of Charlotte's working poor and homeless take every day.
It was cold and wet last Thursday, a perfect day to learn about the homeless. The walk was part of a "homeless walking tour" that Maria Hamlin, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries, leads for various groups several times a year.
This was the first time she'd led "corporate professionals," all members of CCAP (Charlotte Community Affairs Professionals).
All nine started their Thursday catching a bus at 6 a.m. for uptown's transportation center, then had to figure out a transfer to Crisis Assistance Ministry on Spratt Street, west of uptown, where each day hundreds of the working poor line up for help with rent and utilities.
They listened to the stories of homeless, handed out muffins to those in line at Crisis Assistance. Then they walked the three miles from Spratt Street to the St. Peter's Soup Kitchen at the Urban Ministry Center on College Street -- a walk hundreds of homeless make each day.
Along the way, they stopped at camps and under bridges where the homeless sleep. At the soup kitchen, they sat with homeless eating a bowl of soup and a cheese sandwich.
And they learned at least two important lessons: What it means to be poor and/or homeless in Charlotte, and how the donations from companies and thousands of Charlotte area residents are going to a noble cause of keeping people housed and fed.
"We all hear the numbers -- thousands of people in Charlotte are homeless," said Kelly Chopus, director of community relations at Goodrich Corp. and CCAP's chair. "But when you walk on the train tracks and you see those camps and you see how people are actually living -- probably through no choice of their own -- it's really upsetting that we in this community allow that to happen.
"We need to make different choices to make that go away."
Chopus, like the others, was wet after the walk without umbrellas. She held out her hand, cold to the touch: "I've just had to deal with this for five hours. These people deal with this every day, all day."
George Baldwin, managing director of legislative and community affairs at Piedmont Natural Gas, messed up his bus connection and arrived late to Crisis Assistance. As he approached, he was startled to see so many people in line for help.
He listened to the stories of the homeless, and thought: "These are people a step away from being very successful. But for making a bad choice, they would be."
"We saw our donatinos at work -- it was a reward morning seeing these people benefit from the contributions we all make," said Baldwin, next year's CCAP chair. "There was a lot of humanity on those faces. They were saying 'good morning' to me, when I should have been reaching out to them. People need to understand that these are just normal people.
"These are our neighbors. They deserve being treated with dignity."
Chopus and Baldwin said they'll go back to their companies and blog or email about their experience and what they learned.
"We will encourage our employees to get engaged," Chopus said. "We are bless, but we have the potential to do something about this in this community."