EVERYWHERE – What do you do when a global pandemic wipes out everything you hold dear – your job, your home, your future prospects? Well, if you’re Scott Gerke, you sell off pretty much everything you own and hit the road.
Gerke, from Key West, Fla., had been working as a professional DJ, event host, and YouTuber when the pandemic hit. By the end of March, every one of his future gigs was canceled. With no prospects and no income, he bid his rental home goodbye, realizing he’d been presented with the opportunity to travel he’d been waiting for.
He enlisted a friend in helping him sell or give away what belongings he wouldn’t need and had a Key West artist named Afro customize the interior of his van, which includes cabinet spaces, a sink, small fridge, and a bed. An Amish man named Benuel that Gerke met in Pennsylvania finished what Afro wasn’t able to, putting his touches on clothing shelves and a cutting board. A tow-behind trailer carries what won’t fit in the van.
“My whole life is in that trailer,” Gerke said, adding that getting rid of his possessions was “scary as hell at first, but as soon as you give away that first thing it’s freeing.”
Gerke hit the road on May 6. His plan was to connect with fellow human beings through his Once a Stranger project, the motto of which is “Once a Stranger, Now a Friend.” His first stop was Philadelphia. From there he ventured to Lancaster County where he spent time with an Amish family, then on to New York City, and then New Hampshire. When folks in a kiteboarding community page on social media suggested he visit Cape Cod, specifically Chatham, he motored down.
For a few days, Gerke hopped around the Lower and Outer Cape, kiteboarding at Harding's Beach, talking with locals, learning about new people, and taking in some Cape Cod history.
His goal is to change the meaning of the term “stranger.”
For Gerke, it starts with a simple hello, and sometimes people commenting on the T-shirt he wears that has important messages on it. On the front the shirt reads, “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” Beneath that is the hashtag “onehumanfamily.” On the back it says, “Help end the stigma.”
The stranger quote “is kind of my motto in life,” Gerke said. “It’s my way of showing the world that a simple hello can provide not only positive experiences for you, but also those you say hello to.”
The hashtag is the official motto of Key West, basically meaning live and let live so long as you’re not harming anyone. But it’s the message on the back that’s a key aspect of Gerke’s journey.
Last summer, a series of life stressors caught him off guard, resulting in depression and anxiety. Gerke said he was driving one day when he suddenly broke down sobbing, to the point where he had to pull over.
His recovery took months but offered new perspective. Prior to his mental health issues, Gerke said he had difficulty relating to people living with mental illness, unaware of what it truly meant to have depression, anxiety, or a combination of both.
Gerke understood that he was privileged in being able to obtain help and wanted to find a way to raise awareness. Not knowing where to begin, he took to his YouTube channel and started talking openly about mental health, even inviting his own therapist for a chat in one of his videos.
He thought often of people that don’t have support.
“I experienced this for a short time, seven months,” Gerke said. “I wonder what it’s like for those who are lonely, have no money, have nobody to talk to and who have been feeling this for years?”
The question fueled Gerke’s decision to infuse his trip with mental health awareness, spurred on by what he feels is a dire situation in the Keys where Gerke said he’s lost 15 people to suicide in the past two years. Key West, he said, has one of the highest suicide rate in all of Florida, and cuts to health funding haven’t helped.
Gerke said his experiences also inspired him to be genuinely himself.
“Before, I was so worried about being judged for who I was and feeling guilty for who I was because I wasn’t normal,” he said, adding that there was immense pressure from people for him to live a different life more in keeping with societal norms.
But that isn’t who Scott Gerke is.
“I belong somewhere else,” he said.
When COVID-19 hit, Gerke was feeling more comfortable in his own skin, excited to hit the road in his newly renovated home on wheels. The challenge is knowing that he’s operating on the small amount of savings he accrued prior to setting out on his journey.
“I wake up almost every morning a little bit concerned for my well-being,” he said. “I’m not making money. I’m spending money and I’ve got bills to pay.”
Gerke is hopeful that his unfolding story will get seen by people who want to further it by funding the project, which he wants to take overseas.
“What I would love to see is the community support to help me fund this project so that I can take it around the world,” Gerke said. “I really feel like ‘Once a Stranger’ can do some good. I want to be inspired and project that inspiration onto others. I want the word stranger to be an opportunity to turn that experience with somebody into a positive one.”
Scott Gerke can be found on YouTube, where he has his own channel, Instagram, and at scottcgerke.com, where he accepts donations and where people can purchase the T-shirts.