21: Hands Across America

21: Hands Across America

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Hands Across America

It’s easier to accomplish the impossible than the ordinary.

~Ken Kragen, organizer of Hands Across America

It was May 25th, 1986, and our family of six was packed into our Chevrolet Monte Carlo, heading to a mountain crest just outside Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Crowds of people were cheering along the road as we approached our destination. That day, millions of Americans were doing the same thing, heading to different destinations to create a chain from New York City to Long Beach, California.

I was only eleven years old, but I was pretty sure this was going to be an unforgettable experience. As far as my eyes could see, people frantically scurried to form a makeshift line along the shoulder of the highway. My brother Garrett, who lugged our boom box from the car, hastily loaded the six D batteries into their compartment.

“Hurry, we’re gonna miss the song,” I yelled anxiously while taking my place in the row.

Scowling at me, he quickly tuned the radio into local station WCRO. The DJs were already buzzing about today’s events and that a member of a popular Sixties group would be stopping in Johnstown to join our line. Suddenly, the crowd started to count down the last seconds to the three o’clock scheduled time. Everyone hastily joined hands. Then, in unison, several radios from different places up and down the line blared “We Are the World,” then “America the Beautiful,” and then our theme song and reason for the day, “Hands Across America.” Smiles stretched from ear to ear as our human chain swayed to the music. We raised our clasped hands as we sang along to the familiar melodies.

Six and half million people formed a path across the continental United States. Many paid $10 each to reserve a place in line and the event raised $34 million for the USA for Africa charity. It was part of a larger effort that raised money not only to fight famine in Africa, but also to fight hunger and homelessness in America.

I believe the experience of participating in Hands Across America left a lifelong imprint on our family. Most of us chose vocations where we could help people in our communities. My twin sister, Melina, is the Program Director for a county program that provides food, nutrition counseling, and access to health services under a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children. Gina, my younger sister, is a Youth Support and Data Specialist for a youth mentoring program. I spent over a decade as a Chemical Dependency Technician Supervisor and Residential Program Manager for several transitional living facilities and group homes across Western Pennsylvania.

Our country is still struggling with issues of hunger and homelessness. I believe individually we can all do great things, but together, linked, we can do even more.

~Carisa J. Burrows

More stories from our partners