November 27, 2014

Cold night, warm feeling

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Local students raise funds, awareness for the homeless 

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

Two hardy groups of Williston students plan to brave the cold later this month, sleeping outside to raise awareness of the plight of homeless young people.

Williston Central School fourth grade student Carmella Martone and a group of her friends are set to sleep on the sidewalk in front of her family’s Essex Junction deli, Martone’s Market & Deli.

Allen Brook School first and second grade teacher Ali Schwartz is also leading a group of students, the Horizon Helpers. So far, five students and their parents plan to sleep outside at the school.

The local groups are part of Spectrum Youth & Family Services Sleep Out on March 27, where nearly 100 community and business leaders sleep on the street in Burlington, raising money for Spectrum’s services. This year, Spectrum also organized the Student Sleep Out on March 27-29, where students sleep outside in their backyards, at schools or other locations.

“Certainly it’s not like a real night of homelessness,” said Rhonda Forcier, Spectrum events coordinator. “Everyone has proper gear, but it’s as close as we can get to replicating that and being uncomfortable and thinking for a time about what we take for granted, and also representing to those (homeless) youth that there are leaders and other youth in the community that care. Sometimes it’s the first time they’re hearing that and getting that message.”

Carmella, 10, said she is planning for a cold night, but hopes to raise as much awareness as possible. She recently gave a presentation about the event to 100 of her classmates.

“I really like helping the homeless,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair that some people don’t have homes and some people don’t have food or good clothes…. It’s important to care.”

Carmella, her parents, her sisters, and several neighbors and friends plan to sleep on the sidewalk. Originally, they planned to sleep in their backyard, until Carmella’s father, Tony Martone, pointed out that it’s much more pleasant than the living space of a homeless person.

“If you really want them to experience what it’s like to be homeless, you have to be without a home,” said Mia Marinovich, Carmella’s mother.

Marinovich said the Sleep Out has led to “deep discussions about homelessness” and what it would be like.

Schwartz said she and her students have been having conversations about homelessness, and they understand some of the issues as well as, in their words, how lucky they are to have homes.

“Since it’s local and in Vermont and Spectrum serves youth, it’s a challenge in our world they can begin to understand and figure out how they can play a part in helping to make a change,” Schwartz said.

So far, the Horizon Helpers have raised more than $580.

“It’s a good and easy way to have the kids be involved with giving back to the community and empowering them to make a difference,” Schwartz said.

Spectrum provides housing, food, clothing, counseling, a health clinic and other basic needs to approximately 800 young people each year.

“It’s a place for at-risk and homeless youth to have a grounding point,” Forcier said.

There are an estimated 1,000 young homeless people in Vermont every year, according to Spectrum, which focuses on those ages 14-22. The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that, on any given night nationwide, there are approximately 1.3 million homeless youth on the streets or seeking shelter with friends or strangers.

Young people become homeless for many reasons, Forcier said. Some leave home due to poverty or unsafe living conditions, others leave or are forced to leave after disagreements with their parents. Others struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues. Still others grow out of the foster system at age 18, but still have no experience living independently.

“When they come to Spectrum they are assigned a case manager,” Forcier said. “We’re working one on one with those youth to get them the services they need to be successful and gain skills to be independent.”

So far, Student Sleep Out groups have raised more than $9,000—close to Spectrum’s goal of $10,000. More than 50 students on 11 teams have signed up, and Forcier said the list is growing quickly.

The fundraising goal for both events is $175,000, and Forcier said nearly every penny of that goes directly toward Spectrum services, since the event’s overhead is so low.

“Spectrum itself relies on funding from both federal and state sources, as well as grants,” Forcier said. “With everything being kind of reduced in those areas, we need to look more and more to private donors. This is a way to generate those funds to support our work but also it’s just such a meaningful event.”

Allen Brook student Sabrina Butler, 8, one of the Horizon Helpers, said she is expecting the night to be “cold and weird” but said she is doing it to help those less fortunate.

“I wanted to help kids with no homes, because it would be cold in the winter and they don’t have beds,” she said.

Her classmate Kennedy Desautels, 8, said she plans to bring a sleeping bag and warm pajamas.

“I wanted to help raise money for kids that don’t have any homes to sleep in,” she said.

Emily Gay, 7, said she is ready for a cold night, but feels like it’s the right thing to do.

“I felt kind of bad for the kids who don’t have beds and stuff and I wanted to help them,” she said. “Since it’s just one night it might be kind of fun to see what it’s like, but it wouldn’t be very fun to do it every day.”

Forcier said families and students can choose another weekend to sleep out if March 27-29 doesn’t work, though she recommends chillier weather so people can experience some of the discomfort of homelessness.

“The issue never takes a break,” she said.

For more information about Spectrum’s Sleep Out or to donate to a team or the organization, visit www.spectrumvt.org.

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