At a young age, Chauncy Walker had to become a caregiver and breadwinner. His mother and older siblings have retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disorder affecting the eyes. Common symptoms include difficulty seeing at night and a loss of peripheral vision.
“They were diagnosed with that, and their vision was decreasing as they got older, so I had to find a job at the age of 13 to help provide for my younger siblings and also my older siblings, and my mother as well,” Walker explains. “My father, he left, so I took it upon myself to step up.”
Walker didn’t have much of a childhood. The job meant not participating in school activities, something he enjoyed. Later, he started working as a busboy at a restaurant, and over 15 years later, he looks back on that time as his first success. It introduced him to the restaurant and hospitality business, and he knows putting his dreams aside helped him get to where he is now.
At Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Ga., he joined SkillsUSA, which taught him to avoid being defined by his situation and gave him the boost he needed. The 10th-grader started learning culinary arts, a step up from being a busboy, and made it to the state competition in that area.
Walker stuck with SkillsUSA, advancing to the national championships twice. In 2016, he won gold in a team contest, American Spirit. Two years later, he competed in the Pin Design (State Conference) event. He’s also served as SkillsUSA Georgia’s state parliamentarian.
His secret to contest success seems to be his secret to a life well-lived and a harbinger of a career to come. “You know, just be cheerful, happy. Let out your inner child,” he says.
Through SkillsUSA, Walker participated in community service and recruited members. While getting to know new people, he built confidence and honed his skills in hospitality.
He’s earned three degrees: his first, in culinary arts, is from Johnson & Wales University; a second, in hospitality management, and a third, in design and media technology management, are from Atlanta Technical College.
These education pursuits were not without personal challenge. He was 18 and had to leave the family who’d relied on him for years. “I became depressed, having anxiety attacks regularly, because it felt like I was abandoning them,” Walker remembers. “Although it was terrifying, my mom was my biggest supporter.”
He also had SkillsUSA advisor Dessie Hall (story, right), who he calls his “school mom,” to help him find the strength to keep following his dreams.
“There’s so many times when I cried and felt like giving up, and she didn’t let me,” he explains. “She was like, ‘You have a purpose, and you’ve got to go through these steps to get to your purpose. There’s no such thing as an easy road.’
“And today — every day — it just gets to me, and I really love her. And I’m just one of the success stories that she had. There’s thousands more.”
Two clicks to joy
With his degrees and SkillsUSA experience, Walker started his next chapter with an online job search. Clicking on a pop-up, he serendipitously connected with Jennifer Mancy, a Walt Disney World recruiter and SkillsUSA alumna. He was now on a magical path. A phone call with Mancy put him on track to meet the hiring manager, and he was offered a job. He’d never even been to the resort.
“And they pay for my housing, so I’m just overjoyed, because everything had to lead up to this point,” he says. “I had to go through everything to be where I am today, so I wouldn’t trade anything.”
Walker is now working at the front desk of the new Toy Story Land inside one of the Orlando, Fla., theme parks.
“Working for Disney World forced me to be a kid again, smile more and, most importantly, make guests happy,” he notes. “I pride myself every day in doing something different from the previous day of work. Also, having the ability to turn someone’s day around by offering exclusive Mickey-signed merchandise, or just simply granting a ‘little princess’ [guest] access into Cinderella Castle really highlights the magic we as cast members have.”
Within three months of starting, he was promoted twice to operate in multiple areas within Toy Story Land. “The secret to my success is the SkillsUSA Framework and passion for hospitality,” Walker shares.
Is he having fun? “Yes!” he exclaims. “Every single day. Being a cast member, we are allowed to enter the parks for free, so I take 100-percent advantage of that.”
His family is also sharing in his joy. “That’s why I planned a Disney trip for my entire family to come down and experience the magic I make every day. Also, I wanted to thank them for giving me the strength to step up and provide,” he says.
Knowing that his two younger siblings can take care of their mother and that his two older siblings with RP are also taken care of is a relief. His family, who clearly means everything to him, has visited the resort four times so far. They love the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom parks the most, Walker adds.
It’s finally his turn to have some fun. “Yes, I’ve learned to seize every moment, because it’s not always promised,” he says. “And when a great opportunity presents itself, take it!”
Advisor offers a ‘hand up’ to change lives
Chauncy Walker’s “school mom,” Dessie Hall, has inspired many in over 10 years as a student life coordinator. At Atlanta Technical College, she’s responsible for SkillsUSA and all other student organizations.
In high school, Hall, now 44, was passionate about SkillsUSA (then VICA). It’s still “a big deal” for her students, who are often 25 or older, she says. “It gives them a sense of belonging, and I have seen how it’s changed their lives.
“On our campus, we have dislocated workers. We have veterans. We have single parents, those who are economically disadvantaged, and not everybody wants a handout. They want a hand up. And so, that’s my thing. That’s what I always try to do is to give them that hand up.”
In 2017, Hall’s life was threatened by idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH), “in which you have increased pressure in your skull,” she explains. “I ended up starting a business in which I advocate for people who suffer with the condition. So, I get people who reach out to me often, before surgery or trying to figure out what they should do. And I tell them what signs to look for, how to communicate with their physicians.”
She offers details on her website, dessiehall.com, and now expands on the topic in her work as a motivational speaker.