Texas couple on cross-country volunteering road trip makes stop in Columbia
A year ago, Tony and Shawna Hayes’s youngest son graduated from high school and moved out of their home in Houston. They realized they were about to have a lot more free time on their hands — and they knew what to do with it.
“We realized we were going to be empty nesters,” Shawna Hayes said. “It was almost immediate — we looked at each other and said, ‘we can volunteer full-time.’ It was just like, that’s what you’re supposed to do if you have free time.”
Tony and Shawna sold their home and almost all of their belongings and bought a truck and a fifth-wheel camper. They began driving across the country doing volunteer work in March 2023, spending every month in a new city.
Throughout May, they’ve been volunteering around Columbia, donating food and supplies, delivering and serving meals and roofing a house.
People think that volunteering requires “some big, huge commitment” or that they need to “know a bunch, have a bunch of skills or ... have a bunch of time or a lot of money,” Shawna said. “You don’t have to have anything except a willingness to show up and say ‘I’m here, what do you need me to do?’”
Tony, 52, and Shawna, 48, got married in August 2020 and made it a point to do volunteer work whenever and wherever they traveled. Tony is a retired Army veteran, and Shawna now works remotely, part-time, at a nonprofit that donates underwear to children.
Many of their friends thought they were crazy when they told them what they were planning to do, they said.
“People thought we were a little nuts,” Shawna said. “People didn’t really understand what we were saying until we were actually gone.”
The couple will sign up to do any kind of work, she said – they have walked dogs, built habitats at wildlife reserves, worked with single mothers and homeless individuals.
At Oliver Gospel’s Toby’s Place shelter for women and children, Shawna has worked as the receptionist, while Tony has worked in the organization’s thrift store.
“It’s been just like a breath of fresh air in here,” Mardi Jordan, administrative assistant at Toby’s Place, said. “It’s allowed the residents to also see what I (describe) as living a God-called life and what that looks like.”
Some of Tony and Shawna’s work has been regularly scheduled, such as picking up Meals on Wheels routes on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Some have been one-offs, like when they helped put a new roof on a home in Lexington County on May 20 with Home Works of America.
“They came out and just absolutely were the poster child volunteers of just having a warm smile and being willing to do anything,” Joe Huggins, executive director of Home Works, said. “What we do is hard. What we do is hot. What we do is nasty. So it takes a special volunteer to come alongside us and they were just absolutely wonderful.”
The couple has also volunteered with Foodshare South Carolina, Harvest Hope Food Bank and at the Rosewood Crawfish Festival during their month in Columbia.
Besides getting to travel, the Hayes are also hoping to inspire other people, and especially other married couples, to spend time volunteering.
“I think there’s so many opportunities to help people in a simple way and people just don’t even realize, they think it’s this big scary thing and it doesn’t have to be,” Shawna said. “That’s what we want to encourage people — if you have 30 minutes in a month, I guarantee someone needs that 30 minutes.”
They’ve documented their journey on social media, using the hashtag “Marriage On A Mission.” They’ve heard from people both online and in-person who say they are interested in doing something similar, Tony said.
“That’s all we want to do,” he said. “We’re just going to encourage people to give their time…It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale.”
The Hayes are trying to visit cities they’ve never been to — they spent March in Pensacola, Florida, and April in Memphis, Tennessee. Volunteering gives them a chance to get a more in-depth look than just sightseeing, they said.
“People (in Columbia) are amazing, the food is good,” Tony said.
They love markets, and Soda City is in the top two they’ve seen, they said.
“We’ve loved it here and we just want to continue to do our best to please God in whatever we do, in our small way and make a difference,” Shawna said.
The Hayes are pulling their fifth-wheel out of their West Columbia campground on May 31 and heading for Jackson, Mississippi. Afterwards, they’re spending a couple of weeks in Houston before a six-week stint in Alaska, then to Seattle and Sacramento, California, and back to Houston for Christmas and to plan for next year’s trip.
“People always ask ‘how long are you gonna do it?’ Shawna said. “Until God says different, we’ll do it as long as we can. And when we can’t do it this way, we’re still gonna do it, it just might look different.”