2008-10-09 / Front Page

Youth group learns first-hand about being homeless

By Adrienne Downing

Tim Mayers, 15, found a mattress by the roadside to keep him off of the cold ground during the St. Matthew's Church homelessness awareness night. Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten Tim Mayers, 15, found a mattress by the roadside to keep him off of the cold ground during the St. Matthew's Church homelessness awareness night. Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten Members of the St. Matthew's Church youth group stepped out of their comfort zone and slept outside on Saturday night to bring awareness to the plight of the homeless.

Seventeen teens and four adults erected a city from nothing more than cardboard boxes and electrical tape on the church lawn and braved the skunks and the cold to bring local attention to a national problem.

Amy Smith, one of the adult leaders of the group, said the idea for the night came about at the end of the summer when the youth leaders and pastor were planning out the year. "We wanted to make a concerted effort to have a theme and a purpose for everything we were doing this year. The theme is hunger and homelessness and we wanted the kids to experience it first hand," she said.

The group was only allowed to build their shelters from donated cardboard and had to rely on the kindness of parishioners and strangers for food and blankets.

"They were not allowed to have their cell phones, IPods or toiletries," Smith said. "They were only allowed to go inside if they had to go to the bathroom."

Parishioners and passers-by dropped off pizza, chicken and other food items, but the teens were forced to improvise to eat some of the food. "One of the parishioners dropped off a whole roasted chicken," Smith said. "But, we did not have any plates or utensils so they had to figure out how to tear it apart and eat it with just their hands."

Smith said in retrospect she should not have asked so many people to bring food for the kids to eat, but it was a good way to get the community involved.

"As the night went on, they actually had a decent amount to eat. Even the owners of the Village Hearth brought over bread for them, but this particular night was more about homelessness than hunger."

To make the situation more authentic, a few of the youths made cardboard signs and walked Narragansett Avenue asking for donations. "A few people gave us donations, and one person even asked if we were going to buy beer with the money," participant Greg Glomb said.

Although the teens agreed that they only got a small first-hand taste of homelessness, it was enough to change their attitudes about the homeless.

"I honestly did not think about the homeless a lot before we did this, but now it's different. I can't imagine doing it night after night," Glomb said.

The hardest part, Glomb said, was waking up in the middle of the night and being cold. "I did not expect it to be as cold as it was," he said. "I would definitely do it again though if it would help someone who is homeless."

Waking up to the cold was when the reality of the situation began to sink in for most of the teens, Smith said. "It started out as an adventure for some of them. We used every single blanket people brought us, but when they had to wake up and get near the fire to get warm or go inside to use the bathroom, they really started to think it was not so much fun anymore."

Allison Smith, a North Kingstown High School junior, had spent time in Washington, D.C. during a leadership conference doing some work with the homeless, but she said participating in this event so close to home had extra meaning for her.

"We always hear how lucky we are to be able to grow up in Jamestown," she said, "and homelessness is not something we see here, but this really drove home to me how fortunate I am, that I can go home and feel safe and loved every day."

The event did more than just soften a few teens' hearts towards the problems of the homeless; it also raised money the group will donate to Lucy's Hearth in Middletown and the Jonnycake Center. "We collected about $350 to $400 in canned goods for the Jonnycake center and $350 in donations to go to Lucy's Hearth, which the church matched," Smith said. "We had so much more interest from the community than we could have hoped for. I would say it was a big success."

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