Curtis Reliford, founder of Follow Your Heart Action Network.
Curtis Reliford, founder of Follow Your Heart Action Network.

Curtis Reliford has said he is an ordinary man just trying to do the right thing. Raised in Louisiana, Reliford was once a troublemaker, experiencing run-ins with the law as well as abusing substances in an attempt to “escape.” Sober since 1985, Reliford is a firm believer in second chances and has been giving back by dedicating his life to helping the poorest of the poor, as well as helping people experiencing troubles reshape their lives and find their passion.

He started his own nonprofit organization called the Follow Your Heart Action Network (FYHAN) shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in an attempt to give back and help those in need. Through the FYHAN, Reliford collects food and clothes, among other supplies, from people around the country. Reliford and the FYHAN are based in Santa Cruz, which alongside Watsonville and the Bay Area, is where most of the donated materials come from. Once he has collected all he can, Reliford and volunteers travel across the country in trucks and vans, dispersing the accumulated goods to a variety of different peoples in need of help.

Reliford was the recipient of the Jefferson Award in 2006, an award honoring exemplary public service. He has also received the American Red Cross’ American Good Samaritan Award as well as the NAACP’s Community Service Award.

City on a Hill Press spoke with Reliford over the phone while he was at work in Texas about the reasons he founded the FYHAN and how his life has changed because of it.

City on a Hill Press: What inspired you to create the FYHAN?

Curtis Reliford: The main thing is that when Katrina hit, I took off with food, clothes and building material down there to help those people in New Orleans. I haven’t stopped doing that yet … I get clothes and food and take it to the poorest of the poor. I have traveled throughout the United States — I also give it to people in Santa Cruz, Watsonville and people in the Bay Area. I just give it to them, no strings attached … people give it to me to give it to the people I can help.

CHP: How is the FYHAN able to continue getting supplies to those who need them? 

Reliford: I have volunteers helping me throughout the country because they have trust in my work when I tell them what I do and that I take donated items to the poorest of the poor throughout the country. Mainly it has been Santa Cruz and the Bay Area donating supplies and clothes.

CHP: How are you and the network doing now? 

Reliford: I have a small landscape business, but it hasn’t been doing so well and I’ve been spending a lot of time this year on the volunteer work … I have no money in my pocket, I am really struggling. However I can see a little bit of light … if I can get some grants going and some real solid fundraisers happening for it. I’m focusing on the Crow Creek and Navajo reservations near the Grand Canyon, and there’s one family in particular that I am helping in New Orleans — they had a restaurant down there and I was trying to help them bring their restaurant back.

CHP: Do you travel alone or in groups? 

Reliford: It’s mostly just me, but I get about 10 volunteers when I’m ready to head out — it’s mostly students, retired people and regular middle class working people. The goal is to get young people to go on this with me and observe the conditions of the poor throughout the country. I want young troubled teenagers to go with me to see this and to hopefully get them off drugs and alcohol, and help them find their passion. Just looking at someone struggle worse than themselves out there … hanging with me for a month would motivate them to not take drugs and alcohol and to just stay in school.

The experience I had with that was I had 10 men with me … there were four drug addicts and alcoholics among them. They went with me and two years later they ran up to me saying, “Hey man I’ve been sober for two years since the trip.” The gangbanger — he was in college — came up to me and was telling me how he was in college for two years and how he really appreciated the trip. The guy that got out of prison, he ran up saying he got his family back and was keeping a job for two years … that’s what makes me want to help those people, it’s a win-win situation for the volunteers and the people we’re helping.

CHP: How might students support your cause? 

Reliford: That would be great! They could call me and I would just set up a station somewhere in whatever area that is, and just stay put for a week or two and wait on them to bring the donated items. The donated items that they are asking for at the reservations are warm clothing, jackets, sweaters, kid clothes, infant clothes — really anything you can give.