The Salt and Light Youth Group at Greenville’s First Christian Church slept in in makeshift shelters built out of cardboard boxes, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and reflected on the experiences of the homeless - all while fulfilling the church's mission of serving others.
For many children, living without a place to call “home” doesn’t seem like a possibility. But for the estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in the United States each year, life without consistent housing is a reality.
Through First Christian Church’s “Out of the Box for Homelessness,” local Salt and Light Youth Group were given a one-night glance into what those living through homelessness might experience on a daily basis. “Afterwards, it made me thankful for what I had. Like my house, the food, my clothes and stuff,” said 14-year-old Salt and Light Youth Group member Emily Reynolds.
The Greenville, NC youth group slept in makeshift shelters built out of cardboard boxes, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and reflected on the experiences of the homeless - all while fulfilling the church's mission of serving others.
For many youth at the church, the decade-long fundraising event is an annual tradition that is eagerly anticipated each year.
Prior to the 15-hour program filled with interactive activities, hands-on learning experiences and a night spent sleeping outdoors, each teen was asked to raise $150 through sponsorships to donate to the Community Crossroads Center. The group raised over $6,000 total, each dollar going towards the center’s daily operations and its mission of serving the homeless and those at risk of homelessness through safe housing and community programming.
“Without donations and support of churches like First Christian, we could not be able to continueto provide all the services that we have here at CCC,” said Charles Young, executive director of Community Crossroads Center. “It is extremely important to connect with community members to spread awareness about Pitt County’s homeless population.”
When the group of 24 teens arrived at the church for the event at 5 p.m., they were instructed to bring only three items for the night before building an area to sleep in out of cardboard boxes. Many only brought pillows, blankets, sleeping bags and flashlights, while electronics were collected for the night.
To begin the night with an educational experience, the group was asked to choose a fact or statistic about homelessness in the U.S. to paste on the outside of their newfound housing. “Once everybody arrived and we all had finished our boxes, we came in and we ate soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner,” Emily explained, describing meals typically served at homeless shelters.
Though the night consisted of campfire songs and outdoor games, youth group leader Christy Reynolds said she wanted to ensure the group understood the realities behind “Out of the Box for Homelessness.”
“I tried to make it real this year,” Christy said. “Because I wanted them to see, it’s not just a fun night. It is real, it can be in their classroom.”
Jim Worden, president-elect of the CCC’s board of directors, visited the youth group to speak about some of the realities the center’s homeless residents experience.
Because the youth group had gathered so many donations for the fundraising event, Worden also touched on the financial challenges that can come with running a non-profit shelter and the importance of donors like themselves.
The CCC’s annual budget is comprised of approximately only 20% government-sponsored grants, while approximately 80% comes from donations made by private individuals.
“It was kind of a question and answer for the teens and adults. Jim just gave us a little background, and a lot of these kids have served meals there so they’ve seen it,” Christy said. “But (we didn’t know) the financial part of the center.”
The youth group also played interactive games to learn more about homelessness. For one activity, each teen was given a plastic bag and asked to consider what they would pack if they only had 10 minutes to leave their home. Some of the youth’s answers included necessities like food, water and non-perishables, while others considered bringing photo albums and other keepsakes.
“You’re very limited, so you make do with what you can,” 15-year-old Isaac Callis said as he reflected on some of the decisions the group had to make throughout the night.
By midnight, the youth group was asked to quiet down and head to their makeshift cardboard shelters. But for some, sleeping in cardboard boxes in the unpredictable outdoors made for a restless night.
Because of how uncomfortable it was to sleep in the makeshift cardboard shelters, Emily and 12-year-old Cameron Wooten said they were two of the teens who chose to stay up throughout the night. A lack of physical and emotional safety, as well as access to health care, is a common experience for those who experience homelessness. In 2014 it was estimated that 14-21% of the homeless population were victims of violence, all while facing a higher chance of injury, disease and a shortened life span. “If we had done this for a weekend, where would Emily and Cameron have been the second night where they wouldn’t have had a choice,” youth group leader Lasseter Wooten pointed out. “Because that’s a reality too, I think. If this is your only space and you don’t feel safe, when do you rest?”
Adding onto Lasseter’s comments, Christy asked, “How does a parent handle the food, the bathing, the clothes, while you feel like you have to stay awake to protect your child?”
By 8 a.m. the next morning, each teen was handed a grab-and-go protein bar and picked up by family to return to their own homes, beds and pantries. Though “Out of the Box for Homelessness” lasts for just one night once a year, Emily, Cameron and Isaac say their experiences weren’t forgotten. The teens concluded that their perspectives on homelessness changed from only eight hours spent in their makeshift cardboard shelters.
As she reflected on the next morning, Cameron said, “I was definitely still tired. It was very uncomfortable, but it made me feel thankful.”
“You only get a tiny glimpse into what they’re going through, so now we can try harder to make them feel good or give them something that can help them get through their day better,” Isaac added. “Now we know that it is difficult, but that it’s even more difficult for the homeless because they’re constantly going through this.”
Those interested in learning more about the Community Crossroads Center and its mission can contact our office at (252) 752-0829 or leave a message on the CCC website.