Saturday, April 19, 2014

Second Chances and Redemption: Ellen DeGeneres See Past the Label and Into the Heart of an RSO Who Feeds the Homeless as He was Once Homeless and Hungry.


Ellen DeGeneres was yelling for him — Derrick Walton, c'mon down. He ran down the Los Angeles studio steps, sat in the big chair on her national talk show and was cheered as a former homeless man who closes his Chef D's Rock Power Pizza every Monday to feed the homeless and needy. 

And, for the second time in a week on her show, being handed a giant $10,000 check. 

What DeGeneres didn't ask him about April 11 was his place on the Iowa Sex Offender Registry. They didn't talk about his years as a stripper or selling drugs. 

That's what Walton wanted to talk about earlier this week, back in his restaurant. 

"The past is not who you are. That's big in Iowa. Put you in a category, and that's who you are," said Walton, 47. "But my message is where you're at, you don't have to stay." 

It's Easter season, and he believes in resurrection, a rebirth of spirit and hope, but he doesn't go to church regularly. 

"This is my church," he says, sitting in his 1,800-square-foot restaurant, smaller than many homes. "I'm here open to close every day and on Monday feeding the homeless. I call them my special people. 

"It's about relationships, not religion. It's a relationship with Christ, who died on the cross and rose again. Jesus gave his life so we could give to others." 

Biblical and inspirational messages fill the restaurant walls. But he's not about to preach how to believe or in what way. 

This is what he does. 

He wanders through the restaurant Monday, stopping at each table, crammed into two tiny rooms on one side of the restaurant with a handful of booths on the other. On people's plates are ham and scalloped potatoes, corn and rolls. They are eating and smiling through various ailments and disappointments. 

There's jobless Jennifer Larson-Fox with her 9-year-old son who says, "It helps a lot because we don't have a lot to eat." 

There's April Schatz with epilepsy that she battles every day, so severe she can't remember 75% of what happened the day before. So she keeps a folded piece of paper in her pocket to write everything down. 

There's Regina Romeo eating with her 13-year-old son. She faces surgery on her foot and has no job because she can't work with the pain. 

"One step at a time," Walton told Romeo. "I'm just glad you're here." 

Volunteers, one who has traveled more than two hours from Waverly, Iowa, huddle around him. 

"Mondays recharge me for the week," he tells them although his only day off is surrendered. 

Walton already had packed up 46 meals to deliver to a homeless at tent city down Ninth Street. The room began to fill with people, and he got ramped up talking. 

"I don't care what they did, what they're on or how they got here. They're here," he said. "And for 20 or 30 minutes they can eat and smile." 

By the next morning, he is bleary-eyed but ready for another 11-hour shift. 

He's living in a hotel with his wife, Kristen, and their boys, ages 6 and 2, because DeGeneres secured another gift. 

She heard about his home, furnished partly with items from Goodwill, so J.C. Penney put $10,000 toward furnishing their south-side home in addition to $10,000 for the restaurant. The Waltons had to move everything to storage, will move back in when the home is finished, then return to Los Angeles for a third appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show next month to showcase the results. 

"Ellen has so much love and compassion in her," Walton said. "She loves people where they are at."

Walton is in a much different place today. He thanks his mother as much as DeGeneres. She raised eight boys in Detroit with little. 

They bought their gym shoes off a rack at the grocery store and were thrilled, he said. They watched her forgo her own dinner to feed them. 

But he crossed her. She had a firm rule: No bringing girls up to the place without her being in the room.

One day at age 16 he skirted the rule, and she kicked him out. Tough love. 

Was he mad? Of course. He was going to show her. He crashed on friends' sofas, in their basements until their parents had enough of him. 

He got into selling drugs on a small-time scale, and he said he eventually became a male stripper for nearly nine years in Detroit. 

His anger toward his mother softened, eventually. Despite his lifestyle, he still occasionally went to church because that's how she raised him. And he still cooked because that's what he learned from her. 

"I was by her side snapping beans at 6 and learned to fry chicken by 8," he said. 

Walton moved to Atlanta in the 1990s with $135 in his pocket to start over, living in a homeless shelter at first.

"I don't believe in quitting," he said. 

He took a cooking job and met a woman from Iowa. In 2001, he moved here with her. They had two boys. But he fell into trouble again. 

Walton said he wasn't stripping in Iowa. But he pleaded guilty to indecent exposure in 2005 and two years later came to know two women whom he said were eager for his sexual company. 

That's how he found himself naked in front of one until the police arrived. 

It's about relationships, not religion. It's a relationship with Christ, who died on the cross and rose again. Jesus gave his life so we could give to others. 

He told them he didn't touch the woman, "but I'm from the streets of Detroit. I'm not stupid. A Caucasian woman crying in a parking lot. I'm going away," he said. 

He pleaded guilty to indecent exposure and third-degree burglary. Walton said he doesn't blame anyone. He put himself in that spot by making bad choices. 

He was angry for a while but approached his five-year sentence at Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility as his brother instructed: Follow the rules and don't gamble or befriend anyone. He did a lot of crying at first. But he got a job cooking in prison, said he gained the trust of guards and began to feel like a respected person.

So when he got out of prison in 2010, "instead of ripping the streets and running with women," he tried to start over again. He had divorced his wife and signed over custody of his boys, but he said "there is not a day I don't think about them." 

He eventually found a job and in 2011 married Kristen, who had a boy from a prior relationship. Together they had another son. 

One day Walton drove past Rock Power Pizza and saw two mobile food trucks parked outside for sale.

Doug Gruver of Carlisle, Iowa, said he opened Rock Power Pizza a decade earlier "to dedicate it to God." 

Gruver already operated his ABC Plastering & Stucco business, so he set to donate all the restaurant profits to religious missions. But he found the two businesses too much to handle and listed the restaurant for sale. 

In walked Walton — on probation, wanting to buy a food truck, but saying he's a changed man. 

After his prison stint, Walton had volunteered to mentor other convicts. He saw a couple of men make changes in their lives after he talked to them. 

"That started something down inside me," Walton said. "I wanted to help people. This was my opportunity."

He told his story to Gruver. He looked around and saw the biblical quotes on his walls and told him of the changes in him, his desire to help others. 

"To be honest with you, God put it in my head to turn it over to him," said Gruver, who leases the building to Walton. "I know people can change, and God can change him. Now he's doing what God wants him to do with the place." 

The first week he opened in January, Walton said he was determined to do what he had promised himself when he had the opportunity: help other people who had been down the same tough road. 

He didn't have much money, so he charged the food for the needy on credit cards at first, cooking not just pizza but full hot meals with meat, potatoes and vegetables. 

He began closing on Mondays to feed them. 

"God's been in this building for a long time," said Suella Petro, who had been laid off from her corporate job and was hired as manager. "Things happen here every day." 

Jobless women came through the doors and were hired as waitresses. A traveling businessman left $500 when he heard of their mission. People dropped off eggs to give away to the homeless. A jobless man who was fed on a Monday night and later got a job at Wells Fargo donated his first paycheck. 

Then DeGeneres's staff called and everything accelerated. 

During Walton's first appearance on the show last month, a short 2-minute segment when DeGeneres handed him $10,000, he got choked up holding that giant check reproduction, and the story circulated widely on the Internet.

Donations started to come in $5 or $10 at a time from all over the country and have reached $4,600, not counting the $20,000 from the show and J.C. Penney. 

I know people can change, and God can change him. Now he's doing what God wants him to do with the place.

"So keep doing what you're doing," DeGeneres told him during his second appearance on the show. "That's what happens when you're a good person — good things happen to good people." 

Others took his new fame as license to bash him on social media, he said. 

"When they see me on the sex-offender registry, they think kids. I've got people lying on social media saying I molested a child," he said, shaking his head. "You can knock me all you want, but you can't break me." 

He remains unashamed of what happened to him. 

"But I'm not proud of it, either," Walton said. "There's so much shame. But people do stupid stuff." 

He wants others to move on in their own lives, too, to regain the hope of Easter, wherever they choose to live out faith, even in an old pizza joint. 

"There's tons of religions out there. None will get you to heaven," he said. "I don't preach to other people. I show them. I show them my scars. I'm my testimony. 

"What people need to hear more than Twitter stuff is that there are people hurting out here. It's real. So I ask them what they are doing for their community today. I found the key: Giving."

More articles on Derrick Walton:

Man finds his passion in food, feeding homeless

Former homeless man's good deeds catch Ellen DeGeneres' attention
Pizza shop owner closes once a week to feed homeless

Ellen Gives A Very Grateful, Formerly Homeless Man $10,000 To Help Him Feed Hungry