Big Jim’s walking for a cause 

Appalachian Trail trek to raise funds, awareness of drug addiction recovery

By Blenda Copeland

Jim Downs, most recently of Panama City, Fla., unashamedly tells his story, and doesn’t bat an eye.

“I was a monster,” he said of his old life. “I was not a Jesus freak. I destroyed God.” He said he’d also almost go so far as to punch someone for talking about God. But that was then. “Now I’m this,” said the man who’s been clean of drugs and alcohol for more than a year. Downs graduated from a Panama City Rescue Mission’s Men’s Recovery Program on Dec. 4, 2016. 

Of 126 men who entered the drug addiction recovery program he was a part of in 2016, Downs said 15 graduated, and of that number, “I know of five that are sober,” he said. If you do the math, one could very well say Downs is in the top third or fourth percentile, success-wise, of his class. 

Knowing well the relapse statistics, Downs is choosing to propel forward in his new life in Christ. He’s walking away from the old habits, the old people and the old ways of life -- and in a completely new direction. During his turnaround in Panama City, Downs said one morning, he awoke and couldn’t go back to sleep, and it was as if the Lord impressed on him, “Get up: you’re going for a walk.”

That walk became a routine -- every day at 5 a.m. Over time, he increased his steps to about five miles a day.  On Feb. 1, Downs began a journey on foot to start trekking along the close to 3,000-mile well-known Appalachian Trail that eventually leads to Canada. His goals: to share Christ’s redeeming story, and to raise non-profit funds to build -- hopefully by 2020 -- “Camp Redemption,” a place that offers addiction recovery programs for free and connects recovery programs and resources nation-wide into one database. Downs is raising funds through his non-profit, Big Jim’s Walk Inc., and the Million Man Army, co-founded/co-managed by friend Anthony VanScooter.

Having a friend die of a drug overdose was a wake-up call to Downs. He’s passionate about helping others avoid the depths he’s wandered in. He wants to help others understand that it’s not taboo to talk about drug addiction -- it needs to be talked about -- openly. And that recovering addicts need consistent love and encouragement. “You don’t give up showing that love,” Downs said. “That’s what the message of Jesus is: love. And we need to bring that back.”

On Feb. 10, 10 days into an estimated 10-month journey, Downs, also known as “Big Jim,” already had made his way on foot from Pensacola, Fla., to the Lakepoint Resort, north of Eufaula, Ala. He’d been striding at a pace of about 18 to 25 miles a day. Going forward, he anticipated slowing to about 15 miles a day, to try to prevent too much stress on his body.

Intending to spend the night at the Lakepoint Resort and then amble down Highway 165 toward the Bluff Creek campground, Downs said in a roadside interview outside the VFW Post 5850 on Highway 431 that he intended to spend a few days in Columbus, Ga., to recuperate from his first injury -- tendonitis. At the time of the interview, he was about three miles from his evening rest stop at the resort.

Downs’ journey isn’t just about making contacts, garnering speaking opportunities and raising money and awareness. He said it’s also spiritual.

He remembers how far he’s come not in miles, but milestones. “God just keeps blessing me over and over,” he said. He’s documented some of those moments on his Web site,

Reflecting on his journey so far, Downs said it’s easy to be sober in a recovery program, but the hard work starts after graduation, when you leave that structured environment. You’ve got to commit then, to become a different person - to leave behind the old things that once ensnared you.

His life verse is 1 John 1:9 from the Bible, speaking of the Lord: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Why? Because “my healing started when I started surrendering,” Downs said. He’s found peace knowing he’s made amends with his first wife to the point that they can talk and she tells him, “I’m praying for you.”

In the meantime, Downs said he hopes to improve his relationship with his three adult children. “I hope they see a transformation in me,” he said. He also wants to be a “soldier” for the Lord. “I want people to hear how God never gave up on me,” Downs said. “I want people to realize that there is hope in Jesus Christ.”

Monitor Downs’ progress and read the rest of his story on his Web site,