Suicide prevention advocate Cinton Baker (left) poses for a photo with Homeless Coalition volunteer Rob Harris. (Photos courtesy of Pam Navey)

BY DEBBIE PAGE
debbiepage.iredellfreenews@gmail.com

Just a few hours before the snow started to fly on Saturday, Clinton Baker and his Great Dane Watonga, who are on a nationwide walk to promote suicide prevention, were trekking down Garner Bagnal Boulevard in Statesville, unsure where they would find shelter from the storm.

Rob Harris, a Homeless Coalition emergency shelter volunteer, saw the duo and invited them into the emergency shelter at Cochran Street Baptist Church. Baker was amazed by the experience, marveling at the plentiful food, snacks, clothing, shoes, coats and other outwear donated by the community to help the unhoused.

After testing negative for COVID-19, Baker and Watonga settled in for two days and nights. They were eventually joined by seven other guests escaping the howling winds and snow. Volunteers also transferred one guest to Fifth Street Ministries and provided two hotel rooms to two guests with special needs.

BAKER’S MISSION

A New Hampshire native, Baker began his journey in February of 2020, starting in Florida with his support dog and a cart with a tent, clothing, sleeping bag, and other essentials. Baker placed signs on the cart and his dog urging suicide prevention and publicizing the American Society for Suicide Prevention (1-800-273-8255) hotline.

Clinton Baker and Watonga spent two nights at the emergency shelter.

Baker understands being in the depths of despair as a suicide attempt survivor himself. After losing his mother and father, son, and three younger brothers to various causes, “a lot of death” pushed him to depression and a suicide attempt, he said.

Baker wants to show others that they too can overcome hardships to find purpose and joy in life if they just hang in there.

Baker originally planned to make his way from Florida to Alaska, but once COVID-19 hit, Canadian officials would not let him in the country to reach Alaska. He ended up turning around in Washington State, going down the California Coast, and making his way back to Naples, Florida.

His service dog was hit and killed along the way, and he soon rescued Watonga, named after the Oklahoma town where the pair met. Watonga now accompanies him on his journey, outfitted with special boots, reflective vest, and suicide prevention signage.

Baker is traveling up the East Coast, headed back to New Hampshire, to continue spreading message.

Thousands have followed him on Facebook, where he posts several times a day, and supported him on his journey. Each day’s walk is dedicated to a person lost to suicide. Families often post pictures and stories on his page about the person being remembered that day.

Social media posts also assure his family and friends that he is safe along the way.

Though shy, Baker also tries to get news coverage along the way to spread his message, especially to young people. “I hope that someone sees my sign and has a dinner table talk with their kids” about suicide prevention, he said.

Baker encounters a lot of interesting experiences while on the road. One that particularly stands out involved a 9-year-old-boy who undertook a suicide prevention walk in his Oklahoma hometown after his older brother took his life.

“We inspired this kid to do what I was doing. He started an annual walk to remember his brother on the anniversary of his passing,” Baker said.

Clinton Baker with his suicide prevention sign.

In another instance, a woman stopped to speak to Baker. She was on her way home, planning to kill herself upon arrival. She asked God for a sign not to do it — then saw Baker’s sign on the side of the road.

“I get choked up just talking about it. Within minutes, she was going to kill herself; then she saw our signs. That’s one life I know I saved. That’s a miracle to me right there.”

After the snow melts, Baker plans to continue on to New Hampshire, stopping to visit family. He then plans to head to upstate New York to visit more family and then the lakes area of Michigan because he has a lot of Facebook supporters there.

Baker plans to continue his mission until the COVID-19 pandemic ends since he believes the loneliness and isolation resulting from the pandemic is a major cause of the increase in suicide ideation and unnecessary death.

“It’s just not a good time for people. I want to inspire them just to keep going.”

Baker said he felt “blessed to be here” at the shelter. “It’s been amazing! We have a lot of warm clothes, food, shelter from the snow. And it’s a church — what could be better than that?”

He and Watonga survive on the love and kindness of others. He refuses to have a Go Fund Me page because “I don’t want it to be a money thing. It’s all about the cause.”

“It’s great this place was here because I didn’t know what we were going to do.”

Baker had planned to resume his journey on Monday when the emergency shelter closed, but unsafe road and shoulder conditions quickly changed his mind. Coalition members are putting Baker and Watonga up at a hotel for a few days until the snow melts.

FOLLOW BAKER ON FACEBOOK

Those interested can follow Baker’s journey at https://www.facebook.com/lwatonga. Baker provides his phone number and email there for people who need to talk or need encouragement.

THANKS TO EMERGENCY SHELTER ORGANIZERS

Homeless Coalition Chair Pam Navey praised the coalition members and community donors, Iredell County agencies, and volunteers who helped make the shelter happen this past weekend after just 48 hours of planning last week.

Pastor Thomas McDaniels and Cochran Street Baptist were incredibly generous to open the church’s doors to those in desperate need of shelter, added Navey.

Navey praised the “dream team” of Rob Harris, Karen Kidd, Steve Bryd, and Wendy Martin who were instrumental in organizing and operating the shelter.

Emergency shelter volunteers

2 thoughts on “Man on national suicide prevention walk finds refuge at emergency shelter in Statesville

  1. What a heartwarming story! Happy to learn about Clinton & Watonga and their life-saving mission. Thank you, Debbie Page, for writing and thanks to the Homeless Coalition – well done!

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