Great idea for experiential learning from visionary student, teachers, and a State Senator! Applause to you, folks!
Article published Jul 8, 2011 (Foster’s Daily – NH/ME)
STRAFFORD — What would drive a school guidance counselor to go dumpster diving?
If you said looking for a place for some students to sleep, you’d be right.
With a little advice from the homeless center director, Strafford School’s Rick Kaufman recently made a trip to Strafford Appliance in Dover in hopes of finding some temporary shelter. What he found were a couple large boxes, each capable of housing two sixth graders or one principal.
Fortunately, the accommodations were for one night only as Strafford School held its first “Sleep-out for the Homeless.” Students, parents and staff hunkered down June 17 for a wet evening on the school field. The event was intended to teach the students a lesson, to increase awareness of homelessness and to raise money for the Homeless Center for Strafford County.
“Most people, when they think of homelessness, think of that person on the side of the street pushing a shopping cart,” said sixth grader Summer Barnes. “But there are all types of homelessness.”
Barnes read about the concept of sleep-outs for the homeless while researching current events for social studies.
Guidance Counselor Kaufman is also in charge of the school’s “student helpers,” a group of 11 students to which Barnes belongs. The student helpers act as big buddies for younger students and also run several events a year aimed at helping others.
“We decided to take Summer’s idea for a sleep-out and make it a fundraiser for the shelter,” Kaufman said.
As the evening began, the skies opened up and blanketed the area with rain water. Plastic protected some of the cardboard boxes somewhat, but the rain made for miserable sleeping conditions. The rain ended as the staff was making the call of whether or not to move the event indoors and they decided to continue outside. The threat of thunderstorms had subsided. Some students and parents slept shelterless in sleeping bags, some in tents, some in Home Depot boxes and one father/daughter team even carted out a park bench and set up a lean-to against it.
“The fact that there was rain was good, it added a level of apprehension about the weather,” Kaufman said. “It made it a little more uncomfortable. The boxes got wet. This gave it an edge and made it more realistic in my opinion.”
But the evening wasn’t all about suffering. Kids swung on the swing set, threw frisbees and played around as they should at that age, Kaufman noted. People gathered around a fire pit, provided by Principal Jerry Gregoire, for talking and marshmallows.
“It doesn’t replicate what it is like to be homeless, but just being outdoors and knowing about it leant to a cause,” Kaufman said.
State Senator Jim Forsythe (R-Dist. 4) took part in the sleep-out with his daughter and Principal Gregoire was one of the cardboard box sleepers.
Kaufman estimates that about 55 people took part in the sleep-out. Bathrooms in the school were made available throughout the night as were the drinking fountains. Students were sent to “bed” around 10 p.m. about the same time that a fox was spotted roaming the grounds. Parents and guardians followed around 11 p.m.
“It was very successful. I always wish there were more people taking part,” Kaufman said. “But everyone involved liked it. Overall it was a very positive experience.”
Kaufman didn’t sleep, opting to stay on watch for the evening. Around 3:30 a.m. the clouds parted and he was the sole member of the group to enjoy an unobstructed view of the moon.
At 6:30 a.m. Senator Forsythe provided some cinnamon buns for everyone and the Brownies and Daisies provided muffins before participants broke down their sleeping areas and headed home.
Kaufman likes to allow the students to run as much of their big events as possible. For Sleep-out for the Homeless, Barnes, fellow sixth grader Briahnna Neily and seventh grader Emily Greene took up the majority of the preparations. None of the girls are strangers to volunteerism, from the soup kitchen to Muscular Dystrophy walks, a cider festival and the Cocheco Valley Humane Society. Recently, Barnes asked her parents to begin donating what they would spend on her birthday present to Resurge International, an organization that helps to provide surgery for those around the world with repairable deformities or injuries.
Sue Harris, from Third Baptist Church, sees the girls with her work at the Food Pantry and the Community Kitchen.
“Any time you bring awareness of social issues with youth to let them know what’s going on and to have a heart, that’s an issue the community should support,” she said. “You don’t have to solve the world’s problems. You can do one little thing.”
One of the early steps in planning for the sleep-out was “Dessert and Dialogue: Homelessness in New Hampshire,” an informational meeting which was attended by, among others, Susan Ford, executive director for the Homeless Center for Strafford County, Maureen Beauregard, of Families in Transition, and Erica MacNeil, liaison for homeless youth for SAU 44. This meeting sparked the idea of using the sleep-out to raise funds for the homeless center.
Sleep-out for the Homeless raised $1,836. All of the funds will be donated to the Homeless Center for Strafford County. Even in this off season, they are accepting bathroom and cleaning supplies, monetary donations or gift certificates, just about anything that can keep through the summer.
Third grader Jack Holland raised the most funds in the lower school and Briahnna Neily raised the most in the upper school thanks in great part to a donation from Lonza Biologics, of Portsmouth, where her father works.
If you find yourself in the unenviable position of dumpster diving, Kaufman recommends appliance store boxes and notes that there is generally plenty of plastic to help weatherproof. And though Home Depot boxes might be more environmentally sound, they are flimsy when it comes to shelter.