Lives in the Balance: Helping children who are between a rock and a hard place.

Wally Wallington knows how to use a few pieces of lumber, a couple of baseball-sized stones, and the same amount of elbow grease it takes to twirl a child’s merry-go-round to single-handedly move a truck-sized block of solid concrete The retired engineer is solving the age-old riddle of Stonehenge and if you don’t believe me just Google him ( and see for yourself.(

Wally’s methods and techniques aren’t magic tricks; they are the rudimentary application of simple physics. He leverages the power of patience, persistence, ingenuity, and attention with the natural forces we normally take for granted like gravity, balance, and momentum.

Leveraging the Wally Effect to Eliminate Poverty

Segue to Asheville and those weighty socio-economic problems that cause headache and heartbreak. They look as big and immovable as Looking Glass Rock and as vast and dense as Pisgah National Forest. But there is a solution. OpenDoors volunteers take a page from Wally Wallington’s playbook and identify exactly where the gravity of life becomes so great that it reaches a tipping point and weighs down a child, threatening to crush them to dust.

OpenDoors rolls the stones away from the doorways of children’s lives. But the organization also realizes that before you can roll away the boulder of poverty that’s been blocking a family’s safe exit for generations you first have to remove the pebble that’s in the child’s shoe so that she or he can tread her own journey on the healthy and happy path.

The Physics of Positive Change

Yeah, she needs to go to college, and that’s a major problem. But today the more pressing and immediate issue is one that is too easily overlooked. She needs a little help with learning her multiplication tables. Everyone is telling her neighbor to stay away from drugs and gangs and a life of crime. But for that to happen what he really needs is for someone to simply include him in the activities other kids take for granted. He wants to go to the swimming pool or the nature center or have somebody read to him or take him to a matinee movie for a change.

When I worked as a stonemason I learned how to wedge a broom handle underneath a 250-pound rock in such a way that I could leverage its center of gravity and spin it like a top with just a flick of the wrist. There were heavy slabs of patio flagstone that I could not possibly lift. But if I managed to tilt them up on one corner and find their pivot point I could walk them across the entire yard to the desired destination. None of us can go into a community and do all the heavy lifting required to make the problems go away and fix everything that’s the matter. But if a few of us lend a hand and contribute some critical element to a child’s life, their life will pivot back into balance.

That may be all it takes to keep the child from stumbling and falling so they can walk under their own power with the dignified posture that comes from positive self-determination. After all, the camel’s back wasn’t broken with a sledgehammer but with a straw.

Poverty is Personal

The interesting thing about the physics of straw is that one piece can be easily snapped, whereas a tightly knit bundle of straws becomes strong as iron. OpenDoors is like that, lots of people who on their own cannot have a meaningful impact but together can move mountains.

Oftentimes monumental and sustainable life changes happen because someone steps forward to give a kid a ride to school on the day that her mother has a job interview or her little sister has a doctor’s appointment. That’s how you destroy the cycle of poverty. You kill it with practical kindness by being a little more neighborly than normal. The best cures for the worst diseases often come in spoon-sized doses of caring, respect, and inspiration.

Maybe a young woman just needs for someone to listen to her side of the story and explain it to another adult as her advocate. A music lesson or trip to the children’s museum can mean the difference between another bad day in a boy’s potentially wasted life or a happy morning en route to his productive and successful adulthood.

That’s not too much to ask, and OpenDoors will make a few phone calls and get right on it. Lives have been saved in Asheville by people who did nothing more heroic than making an extra peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a youngster and then inviting them to come along to the park to feed the ducks with the other children. To me that’s a greater and more awe-inspiring miracle than Stonehenge.

It Takes Children to Raise a Village

The strength of a chimney or retaining wall depends on how the individual stones are strategically placed and interlocked so that the resulting structure is exponentially greater than the sum of its small parts. That’s naturally sustainable architecture that will outlive us all. Likewise, the future of any community depends entirely upon the success of its children. That’s the most fundamental law of social physics. So OpenDoors leverages the power of compassion, respect, accountability, education, enrichment, and community to build successful lives that otherwise might wind up as just another pile of rubble.

When you help children find the sweet spot of opportunity in life that everyone deserves, the same gravity that held them down becomes a force to spin momentum in their favor. The concrete barricade of poverty suddenly shifts 180 degrees in the right direction and kids who had their backs to the wall find themselves facing a wide-open field of potential and possibility. Propelled by the experiences in life they’ve had up until that point they take full advantage of every opportunity in a way that makes them absolutely unstoppable, invaluable, and inspirational. That’s how to successfully eliminate poverty and alleviate the nagging angst it causes those of us who feel empathy in our souls for the needless suffering of children. ##

Tom Kerr is a longtime resident of WNC and a raving fan of OpenDoors of Asheville and everything for which it stands.