From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As the sun beats down on a desolate stretch of Route 60 in New Mexico, Jimmy Wayne is pounding the dusty pavement, trying to keep his mind clear. "These long stretches of highway are very lonely," says the country singer, who was homeless and in foster care as a teen. "I've lived on the street, I've slept in a bus station with cat-sized rats. Being out here stirs up a lot of horrible memories."

But it's those memories that got him to embark on his 1,700-mile trek in the first place. Known for hits like "Stay Gone" and "Do You Believe Me Now," Wayne, 37, had just finished touring with Brad Paisley at the end of last year when "this feeling of guilt came over me," he says. "I was stirring my coffee, turning up the heat and I started feeling I hadn't done enough to give back." So on Jan. 1, Wayne, who's single, kicked off his Meet Me Halfway walk from Nashville to Phoenix to bring attention to the plight of foster kids who age out of the system at 18 and have nowhere to go. "A lot of these kids go from foster care to a homeless shelter," he says.

For the past five months-with days off to tend to work commitments, allow the blisters on his feet to heal, or speak to Congress, as he did in May-Wayne has tried to walk in a homeless teen's shoes: hoofing it as much as 20 miles a day, first through bitter cold and now scorching heat. At night he sleeps in a tent, a motel or a stranger's spare room. "There are people I met," he says, "that I'll be friends with forever."

Growing up in North Carolina, Wayne bounced between foster care and his mom, Brenda, who struggled with alcoholism and served time in prison. "He did odd jobs like picking blackberries to send money to our mom so she could buy cigarettes [in prison]," says his half sister Patricia Looper, 38. Says Wayne: "We would stay in a foster home long enough to get attached to the family, and one day social services would pick us up and take us back to our mom." After his mother abandoned him at a bus station when he was 13, Wayne lived on the streets and in group homes for three years until Bea and Russell Costner-an elderly couple whose lawn he'd been mowing-invited him to live with them. With the now-deceased couple's support, he went to college and was later discovered through a Nashville songwriting contest. "My whole life changed because of them," says Wayne. "It was the first time I felt safe."

With 400 miles to go (he plans to reach Phoenix by the end of July), Wayne hopes he is inspiring others to do what the Costners did. "I'm here because someone helped me," he says. "Amazing things happen when you give a kid a chance."