They sleep on couches, one after another, or they crash at night in a car that’s often hidden away in plain sight throughout the Wheeling area.
They are homeless, these children, for a plethora of different reasons, and whether or not they attend school is an imperative part of the issue in this area. One organization, however, works seven days a week attempting to discover these youthful members of our community in order to get them involved with the Transitional Living Program at Youth Services System.
The program, explained YSS representative Sondra Jackson, teaches the children valuable skills that most people take for granted, and funds are generated in many different ways including the annual Wheeling Sleepout event that is scheduled for Nov. 4 at the J.B. Chambers I-470 Complex in the Elm Grove neighborhood of Wheeling.
“The difference between homeless youth and the adult homeless population is that kids usually try to stay hidden away. They couch surf, and they stay wherever they can,” she said. “They are not the people we’re going to see panhandling around the area, and that’s because they don’t want to be seen. That’s why the money that we raised through the Wheeling Sleepout is very important.
“All of that money goes toward the Transitional Living Program that works with older youth between the ages of 17 and 21, and those funds cover the expenses that there is no other funding for,” Jackson continued. “In the past five years we’ve been able to assist 300 homeless, at-risk transitional teens, and the average has been between 45 and 50 young people each year.”
The first five Sleepout events have raised more than $150,000 in total, and the goal for this year is $50,000.
“The more money we’re able to raise, the more youth we are able to serve, and that is why our goal this year is what it is,” Jackson reported. “If we meet that goal, it means we will be able to reach even more young people because they are out there, and they do need our help.
“As long as we get our community’s support, we can do this. If you think about the youth that we serve, they are in an at-risk situation because of their family situation. And then if you think about yourself when you were 18 years old, and you are driving an older car, and it breaks down, whom do you call? Your parents, that’s who,” she said. “But the children that we serve do not have that option, so what do they do? That’s why we do what we do here at YSS. Their connection to family and community has unraveled.”
The Wheeling Sleepout will begin at 4 p.m. in the area that is “Lisa’s Field,” and those participating will begin building their box homes that they will sleep in overnight. It is a rain-or-shine event, by the way, for one very important reason.
“Rain, shine, mud, snow, we’ve have a little bit of everything during our first five years,” said Jackson, who has coordinated the event from the very beginning. “It’s rained on us before, and one year it rained so much during the night that we had to deal with a lot of issues involving that mud. That’s why we always recommend to those coming to participate to bring a couple of tarps for the area below their box and to cover it in case it does rain or snow.
“But it’s a rain-or-shine event because the young people who are homeless do not have options that depend on the weather,” she continued. “No matter what it might be doing outside, they are still homeless, and if they don’t have a roof over their head, they have to deal with it because of their situation.”
The Salvation Army will be on hand to offer snacks and warm beverages, and Ye Olde Alpha once again will supply a late supper for the participants. Don Chamberlain will offer field games beginning at 9 p.m., and the Oddfellow Lodge No. 9 will supply a corn hole tournament and other games. The Eagle Riders will prepare breakfast in the morning.
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Jackson said this year’s entertainment will range from Star Wars characters with a special appearance by Lord Vader to live and local entertainment. “DJ Blazemore” (Josh Blakemore) is set to return and “Hit Play” will perform at 6:45 p.m.; “The Last Resort” with Bob Gaudio and Roger Hoard will begin at 8:15 p.m.;, and “Mr. Fancy Pants” will take the Wheeling Sleepout stage at 9:30 p.m.
Each year the participants compete in a few different contests during the event, including best box design, best box theme, and best of show, and they also battle in a fundraising contest. The judges for this year’s cardboard box contest will be Clare McDonald, James Guy, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott, WTRF’s Brenda Danehart, and her husband, David Gessler.
The top individual fundraiser will have a choice between two tickets to the Jan. 1, 2017 Steelers-Browns game, complete with a parking pass, two jerseys and pair of clear tote bags, or a $500 travel voucher from Uniglobe.
“We have had so many amazing designs in the first five years that I have no idea what to expect this year because of the amount of creativity the participants have displayed,” Jackson said. “As far as the box theme contest, what the judges will be looking for is for the participants to display what they have found out about the issue of homeless youth and what resources are available in this area.
“We also are very excited that the players from the West Liberty University football team will be back again on Saturday morning to help with the cleanup, and Scott Ludolph from Scrappy Pappy’s is returning, too, to take care of the recycling of the cardboard boxes. To find the boxes, we encourage everyone to ask at Lowe’s or at Carpet Showcase because they always seem have the best ones for a project like this.”
And in the end, the funds go to the Transitional Living Program so the staff members can continue addressing important issues like education, employment and gaining work experience, healthy habits, cooking and meal planning, and maintaining a financial budget. The staff assists in the beginning with the creation of goals and a plan to achieve those goals, one of which involves moving into their first apartment.
“The people involved with that program work with the kids that are aging out of foster care or have had their lives shattered by circumstances out of their control, so our work with them improves their safety and their futures as adults in our community,” Jackson said. “The program takes those youths off of the streets or out of dangerous living situations so they can start building a new foundation for future success.
“Although a lot of these young people are hiding, some of their classmates at school may be aware of their situation, and that is why this year our theme for the Wheeling Sleepout is ‘Friends Helping Friends.’ That’s because we want to know how to find these kids so we can help them and the homeless youth usually finds out about it from their friends because they are either in school or they are working.”
John Moses, executive director of YSS, said studies on youth leaving foster care at the ages of 17-18 have shown that these youth may not have the education and training that leads to employment and that their respective income is half that of their peers of the same age. Nearly one in five, Moses reported, have not completed their basic education and are more likely to need health care, to be parents, or to be involved in the criminal justice system.
“These youth have very few of the resources that you or I relied on at this age,” Moses said. “No ties to family members, no real connections in the community, and they face the future with no one in their corner.”