By Joseph Cerquone
Jen Walker remembers what happened like it was yesterday. She had begun hosting an annual summer event for her Del Ray community. There was plenty to do to get ready—elbow grease chores like loading and unloading, carrying things and unpacking them.
Suddenly, she heard something—a child’s voice. “What is the movie tonight?” It was Lucy, a little neighborhood girl. Walker answered her and then Lucy ran off. Figuring she would see her later, Walker resumed setting up Cinema Del Ray, a free outdoor theater that, through her vision and sponsorship, rises anew each summer from the field beside the Mount Vernon Community Center.
Next Walker heard something else, and not from whom she expected it… “Do you need help?” It was Lucy again. She had turned back, away from play and straight for the job of serving others.
So goes the story Walker chooses to tell when she is asked for a favorite from her years of community involvement. Her choice makes perfect sense. In Jen Walker’s world, few pursuits top volunteering. Lending a hand like Lucy did, “costs nothing but time,” according to her, “yet it can make a huge difference in people’s lives.”
Walker found the time despite a full-time career as a Realtor since 1999. Her background brims with enough volunteering for ten people. Service on local boards and committees? She has given countless hours of it to the likes of the Del Ray Business Association, Alexandria YMCA, Rebuilding Together Alexandria, Campagna Center, Leadership Alexandria, City of Alexandria Wayfinding Committee, Burke & Herbert Bank, and Del Ray Home Tours.
Sponsorships? Same thing. Besides being the sole funder of Cinema Del Ray, Walker has long provided critical support for wide range of events, organizations, and entities. They include Art On The Avenue, First Night Alexandria, Alive!, Senior Services, Alexandria Police Foundation, Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services, Northern Virginia Aids Ministries, Kelly Cares, Miracle Field, and Mount Vernon Community School.
“I can’t tell you how many times Jen has come up to me and said, ‘I’ll pay for that,’ or ‘I want to do that,’ and handed me a check,” local civic leader Pat Miller recounts. “She’s magnanimous.”
And then is there is Jen Walker, provider extraordinaire of every day kindness that means so much to its recipients. It consists of actions like walking neighbors’ kids to school; shoveling snow that threatens to shut in the elderly; doing home repair for a hospitalized friend; and, going out of her way to offer rides to passersby lugging groceries.
This lesser known side of Walker is a big reason Pat Miller nominated her as a Living Legend. “People like Jen are rare,” Miller says, “she is extremely giving. It all comes from the heart, too. She doesn’t like the limelight, but she deserves every bit of it.”
Others concur. Del Ray citizens have honored Walker with a Heart of Del Ray Award. And her exceptional community service has been recognized by the Del Ray Business Association and The Alexandria Commission on Women.
Walker has achieved this regard driven partly by selfless personal standards. “Each day I try be the best person I can be.” And she aims to leave a legacy one day of having been “someone who could be counted on.” Already, you can depend on Walker to be the least impressed by what she does for the community. “I’m just me,” she asserts, shucking the focus like it is ill-fitting clothing. “Many others do much more than I do. They deserve recognition.”
Walker’s drive comes from another source, too–her unflagging commitment to giving back to a community that has been very good to her. After moving in 20 years ago, Walker went on to become a successful real estate agent with McEnearney Associates. Love and gratitude wind through her comments about Del Ray. So, too, does her assertion that the locals can’t be beat: “I have met the best people volunteering.”
Any doubt Walker means what she says evaporates when she gets a report that a volunteer is seriously ill. Walker tears up, looks down and struggles for composure as the bad news sinks into her. “Volunteers are part of my family,” she says quietly.
The moment takes time to pass. Walker and others were preparing to bedeck Del Ray’s main street, Mount Vernon Avenue, with year-end holiday decorations. Somewhere, too, is a reservoir of consolation fed by the steady flow of good done by the volunteers whom Walker regards so highly. It can be a hedge against life’s rougher edges.
Cinema Del Ray is one place where those edges never intrude. “Parents and kids are able to go out together and have fun,” Miller says of the crowds who now come by the hundreds. Though they arrive from a wide variety of backgrounds and walks of life, they don’t leave that way. The event has a way of bringing everyone together.
“Some movies have songs and the whole audience will sing along together,” Miller reports. “Jen also passes out glow bracelets to the kids. They wear them and run around. After a while, the entire area looks covered with fireflies.”
Walker doesn’t put just any old film up on the screen, either. Her first step is to ask people what they want to see. “It is their event,” she says. For such reasons, Cinema Del Ray has become a beloved community happening. When bad weather threatens, Walker will get phone calls from would be attendees worried about a potential cancellation. Time and again, too, parents share their families’ fond memories of spending summer evenings at the event.
Meanwhile, Walker keeps her own memories close. They involve peering through the cloud of imaginary fireflies Miller said forms as children with glow bracelets run about playfully. In those moments, Walker still finds Lucy, a young woman now, her past marked with helping out many times at Cinema Del Ray. The child grew up to become somebody truly special – a dedicated volunteer.
The fact that Lucy’s giving heart struck an early beat because of something she created and sponsors is reward enough for Walker. For everyone else, it is what Living Legends do.