When James Walter was growing up in Jefferson County near Clarion, his mother frequently invited a guest or two to dinner. Neighborhood children, out-of-work strangers, single mothers and law enforcement officers sidled up to the table to enjoy a home-cooked meal and conversation.
“Rarely did we have a meal, when I was a kid, where someone else wasn’t there,” said Walter, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Vestaburg. “Anyone was welcome.”
So when Walter, 66, of Waynesburg, and his wife, Paula, were raising their four children (three biological children and Paula’s son, Richard, who Walter adopted at a young age), the couple opened their home the same way. Their children’s friends often stayed for dinner and sleepovers.
At times, kids or their parents would ask if the children could stay longer – the parents were having marital issues, or a parent was struggling with alcohol abuse, or any number of reasons – so the Walters welcomed them and considered their young guests unofficial family members.
But, over the years, many children became more permanent members of the Walter family. Walter and Paula ended up serving as foster parents to more than 80 children, and eventually adopted eight.
For his commitment to providing children with a loving home, and for his service to Shiloh Baptist Church, Walter has been selected as the Observer-Reporter’s ExtraORdinary Person for the month of October. The ExtraORdinary People series recognizes area residents who make positive contributions to the community.
Said parishioner Charlene Cooper, who nominated Walter, “James is the kind of person who would truly give somebody in need the shirt off his back or his last dollar. He has done this many times for his family, friends, parishioners and anybody who came to him for help. He helps any and everybody who needs it, even if he has to sacrifice something himself.”
But for the outgoing and energetic Walter, providing a home for kids who don’t have one is what he’s supposed to do.
“I’m not going to lie. Financially, I’ve been worried a couple of times, but it’s always worked out. The Lord has been good to us,” said Walter. “It hasn’t been perfect, but we’ve done everything as a family, and we’ve had a lot of fun. We didn’t have much growing up, but I wouldn’t change my childhood for anything, because family was important.”
In addition to fostering children, the Walters adopted Joshua, who had been in foster care since the age of 2; Noah, 7, the youngest; and two sets of siblings, Amanda, Kate and Missy, and Kyliene, Katie and Cordell.
Said Kylie, 18, who has lived with the Walters since she was about 18 months old, “I’m really thankful they adopted me. It’s been a really good thing. It’s so much better than living with unstable parents who can’t take care of you.”
Walter worked for Columbia Gas for 30 years, and relocated several times for his job. He and his family moved into a three-bedroom home in Waynesburg in 1996.
Walter emphasized he didn’t become a foster parent “to take anyone’s place.”
“I became a foster parent to give kids a place to go until their families got things worked out,” said Walter. “Sometimes it was overnight, sometimes a week or two, sometimes a few months, and sometimes longer.”
Walter’s faith has been an important part of his life since he was a boy. Often, when he traveled for work, he found a church where he could attend mid-week services or assist with activities and programs.
In 1997, Walter accepted a position as pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, and he ministers to the approximately 50-member congregation.
Walter hit a rough stretch in March 2002, when he was diagnosed with nasal cavity cancer, and two months later he was laid off, just months before he was eligible for retirement.
Being around his family, he said, gave him the strength to endure surgery, grueling rounds of chemotherapy and losing his job.
He and Paula also weathered the death of Richard, who had served as a pastor at a church in Maine until he died of cancer in 2107 at the age of 46.
Walter said fostering children has been one of his most satisfying undertakings, and he was happy when his daughter, Amanda, became a foster parent to four children in an effort to “pay it forward.”
“There’s always somebody who needs help, and when you have the opportunity to help someone, you go ahead and do it,” said Walter. “Foster parenting was never a hard thing for me. It’s been a pleasure. Everybody should be a foster parent, if at all possible.”
As part of the ExtraORdinary People Award, James Walter has been awarded $500 to give to the charity of his choice, underwritten by the Observer-Reporter and Range Resources. Walter has chosen the American Diabetes Association’s Dash 4 Diabetes in Punxsutawney.