When it came down to it, I lasted about an hour at last week’s Wheeling SleepOut for Youth Services System Inc. Thankfully, my participation was limited to that of spectator, but the experience has yet to leave me.
The SleepOut’s motto, “We sleep out so kids don’t have to,” pretty much explains what and why the annual event operates. By all estimates, this year’s was likely the coldest SleepOut YSS has ever hosted. But nevertheless, school groups, work friends, families and lots of hearty individuals made it their mission to brave the bone-chilling temperatures in the name of raising awareness for homeless young people.
Cardboard boxes were transformed into spaceships, police cars, castles (complete with a drawbridge) and even a re-creation of Ohio Valley Medical Center. Hot chocolate and live music kept the volunteers warm and moving as an overall spirit of togetherness took the place of radiant heat.
I have never participated in the SleepOut, but my mom, Molly Williams, works as chief financial officer of YSS. When I moved back to the area in 2018 with my husband and two boys, I quickly became acquainted with the fact that “working for YSS” doesn’t just mean showing up and doing a job for a paycheck. The folks at this institution are there because they want to be, heart and soul. My mom, in particular, has always had a heart for social justice, and, in the course of her career, she’s found ways to transform her talents with numbers into work that benefited those among our community in need.
So, when the chance came around to join her at the SleepOut, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to teach my 9-year-old son Liam something about what it means to be homeless.
“So, they’re going to make forts out of boxes and sleep in them?” he asked excitedly the night before. “I want to do that! Are we doing that?”
“Well, no, but I thought we’d at least go see it and learn some things,” I weakly explained.
“That’s still not as cool as sleeping out in boxes,” Liam said.
The hard-hitting lesson in what it means to be homeless was off to a great start.
Cut to the following night. We dressed in layers, and I cringed more than a little as the weatherman said it would be the coldest night of high school football season so far. My mind instantly flashed back to my marching band days and one particularly cold night game against Strasburg. I think we played “Louie, Louie” just as tad faster to keep all of our fingers from freezing. Then I imagined trying to sleep in that kind of weather.
We kissed my husband and younger son goodbye and soaked up the heat in the car as we drove to the J.B. Chambers I-470 Sports Complex. Once we parked, we put Liam in charge. This was, after all, about letting him have the full experience … or at least as much as Mom and Grandma could stand. After deciding hot chocolate and copious amounts of mini marshmallows could wait, we said hello to some of my mom’s co-workers and started making our way around the field to check out the cardboard shelters.
First, there was YSS CEO John Moses’ and Team ShineOn’s spaceship, then a cardboard school bus and a large structure being worked on by the team from Ziegenfelder’s made from Budget Saver boxes. We were told no Twin Pops were harmed in the making of the structure but could definitely be kept cold enough under the present conditions.
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Each structure was also an entry in the SleepOut’s Boxed-In Design competition, which asks that every entry provide a way to learn about the homeless.
From those structures, we learned that, in a class of 30 students, at least one will experience a form of homelessness each school year. Of older youth, one in 10 people between the ages of 18 and 25 will become homeless over a 12-month period. When you put it into terms you can see and relate to — like me on a freezing football field armed with just a clarinet — homelessness starts to, well, hit home.
Later, once we were safely ensconced in a booth at Perkins with the promise of hot beverages and baked goods, Mom took the time to ask Liam his thoughts on our night out together.
“What did you think about the idea of having to live like that?” she asked.
“II think it’s pretty cool. I’d be OK living in a box,” he insisted.
“Yeah, bud, but in this weather? On a night like tonight?” I asked. “We were only lucky that it was dry. Think about if it was wet or snowing.”
“And every day, you’d have to take everything you own with you,” Mom pointed out. “You can’t just leave it.”
“Why?” Liam asked.
“Because you don’t have anywhere safe to leave it,” I said.
Liam stared at his mozzarella sticks, looking lost in the idea of cataloging and carrying all of his worldly possessions. The conversation dwindled from there as I continued to feel the bitter cold that seemed locked inside my muscles. Though I had been hoping a 9-year old would grasp the idea of how difficult life on the streets could be, I realized then that at 37, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d gotten it yet.
My eyes began to sting imagining my own sons in that position. How many times had my own family been a paycheck away from homelessness? What separates someone like me and my kids from a young person with just a backpack and a sleeping bag? Passing Wheeling’s own little “tent city” on the banks of the creek on our way home, I had a different view of life inside those canvas walls.
So maybe next year we’ll make a giant cardboard dragon and do our best to sleep on the field or at least make it to the two-hour mark.
In the meantime, this mama is grateful there are people waking us up to the painfully cold realities of this world, and still many others working to respond with all the support they can.
If you want to learn more about the SleepOut and all that YSS does for young people in our area, visit youthservicesystem.org. This year’s event had raised more than $65,000 by the time of this writing.
• Cassie Bendel was born in Wheeling and raised in Bellaire. A graduate of St. Vincent College, she began her writing career as a reporter with The Times Leader and the Steubenville Herald-Star before writing content for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and a national faith-based consulting company. After more than a decade in Pennsylvania, she has moved back to the Ohio Valley with her husband and two sons.