To help combat local youth homelessness, Youth Services System Inc. is hosting the ninth annual Wheeling SleepOut on Nov. 8-9. at the Miracle League Field at J.B. Chambers I-470 Complex.
The SleepOut is an awareness and fundraising campaign for the YSS Transitional Living Program that offers housing, mentoring and life skills training for youth ages 17-21 who have aged out of foster care or are otherwise facing homelessness. Participants raise money and then sleep out overnight in makeshift cardboard structures they build and cover with facts about youth homelessness. Since 2011, the SleepOut has raised more than $320,000. This year’s goal is $75,000.
One in 30 teens experiences homelessness each year, according to a November 2017 analysis by the Voices of Youth Count research initiative.
For older youth and young adults, it’s 1 in 10.
Tasha (not her real name) was one of those youth. She was in the foster care system since birth and was physically and emotionally abused growing up. She was sent to a boarding school at age 10. When it was shut down, rather than being welcomed home she was placed in a shelter.
At 17, she went to live with a family friend, but was sent to live at Crittenton Services in Wheeling when she became pregnant. While there, she graduated early from high school and enrolled in college.
Now 21, Tasha attends nursing classes at West Virginia Northern Community College while working at a local nursing rehabilitation center and caring for her 3-year-old son.
“It’s hard to balance student, employee and mom duties, but I’m making it happen!” Tasha said. “I love the life God has blessed me with and the support I get from YSS, Youth Opportunities Unlimited and more.” Youth Opportunities Unlimited is a YSS program in conjunction with WorkForce West Virginia that helps youth find and sustain employment.
The Wheeling SleepOut takes place every November during National Runaway Prevention Month. The top fundraising individuals and teams win prizes, and they compete to build the most creative, comfortable and awareness-raising cardboard structure based on the National Runaway Prevention Month theme of “Shine a Light.”
This year so far, about 20 teams and 135 participants have registered.
“This is truly a community event that brings together people from all sectors including schools, churches, civic groups, businesses and even groups of friends — all working together to shine a light on a topic that gets very little exposure here locally, youth homelessness,” said Terra Crews, YSS special events coordinator.
The atmosphere is festive, and the competition is intense between teams vying to create the best structure before the 8 p.m. deadline. This year’s celebrity judges are state Sen. William Ihlenfeld, W.Va. Del. Erikka Storch, W.Va. Del. Shawn Fluharty, WTRF-TV 7’s D.K. Wright and Clare McDonald, who is an artist and the wife of longtime YSS board member Robert Gaudio.
The event includes dinner donated and prepared by Charlie Schlegel of Ye Old Alpha; musical entertainment; the Fun-Raiser truck; costumed characters and games; a selfie station; and breakfast donated and prepared by Eli White and the Eagle Riders
Official sponsors are Wayne and Carolyn Smith, BB&T West Virginia Foundation, Discount Building Supplies 2, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Ziegenfelder’s, Pittsburgh Pirates, Troy Group, Northwood Health Systems, Wheeling Board of Realtors and Wheeling Hospital. In addition, Oglebay Park donated the team grand prize.
“We want to thank these sponsors plus all those who donated money and prizes to make this a fun and successful night — but more importantly, to help YSS create brighter futures for youth by keeping them off the streets,” Crews said.
All are welcome to attend the Wheeling SleepOut, which runs from 4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, to 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 9. Donations will be accepted at the field, and volunteers are still needed to help Friday night and with cleanup Saturday morning. For information, call Crews at 304-218-2834, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.wheelingsleepout.org.