NFA students sleep out in solidarity with their homeless neighbors

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Oct. 28, 2013
(L-r) NFA students Rori Sutton, Jessica Zelasky, Madi Henault and Melissa Weglein crouch inside the makeshift shelter they built to get a feel for what it's like to be homeless. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
(L-r) NFA students Rori Sutton, Jessica Zelasky, Madi Henault and Melissa Weglein crouch inside the makeshift shelter they built to get a feel for what it's like to be homeless. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

It seemed a cruel irony that on a night when 40 Norwich Free Academy students voluntarily camped out in solidarity with their homeless neighbors, the mercury plummeted to sub-freezing temperatures for the first time in a relatively mild fall. “I’m wearing three sweatshirts,” said one chilly teenager, who huddled together with friends as they worked on filling out a quiz on facts and figures of homelessness in southeastern Connecticut.

“It’s going to be a long night, but it’s going to be worth it,” said sophomore Kristina Jacobs, who was taking part in the event for the first time. “We’ll learn to have empathy for people on the street.”

One of the other teens questioned whether the proper word was “empathy” or “sympathy.” Amanda Brenner, who’d done the event before, settled the question. “You’ll feel empathy in your toes by the morning,” she said.

The students were participating in NFA’s third annual homelessness awareness event Oct. 25, aimed at raising both student consciousness of the problem and money for local agencies that work toward solutions. Jody Vara, coordinator of NFA’s Project Outreach, which sponsored the event, said that this year’s funds will be evenly divided between Reliance House Outreach and the Norwich Community Care Team Rapid Re-housing and Shelter program.

Vara said that participation in the sleep-out has grown each of the three years it’s been held. The students arrived at the campground between 5 and 6 p.m. and were given raw materials for their makeshift shelters: plastic tarps, sticks, duct tape and rope – but no instructions on how to build them.

“Some of them tied the tarps to the fence,” she said. “Some others built a little box.” Inside, they stowed their sleeping bags and an occasional flashlight, but apart from that, the tents were deliberately devoid of the comforts of home.

Among the activities planned for the night were a quiz, a short film and a candlelight vigil at midnight. Afterwards, said Vara, students could try to sleep if they wished.

Junior Amanda Brenner said that initially she didn’t want to participate in the event, but that Vara persuaded her. Now she’s one of the three-year veterans of the sleepover. What convinced her, she said, was “getting more information and realizing the whole extent of homelessness.” Like the people who actually live on the streets, “we’re not out here with space heaters and tents and stuff.”

Junior Hector Vargas was also in his third year at the sleepover. He said that he and the other students collected pledges from family, friends and classmates before the event. “As we went through the night, we learned what we were helping with,” he said.

The students filled out quiz sheets with statistics on local homelessness, guessing at some of the questions and being astonished by the answers. Why do poor children tend to lose weight in the winter? The answer was, because their families must cut into the food budget to pay for heat. What is the living wage for a mother with one child in the state of Connecticut? The answer: $23.53 per hour, roughly three times the minimum wage.

About 44 percent of children in Norwich live at 200 percent of the poverty line, meaning their family income is half of what is considered poverty level, Vara told the students.

“That’s really freaking poor,” said one of the teenagers.

“The reason we’re doing this is so that you can get a feel for what’s going on in your own community,” Vara told the teens. “Think of that. Think of how lucky you are. You might not have it all. You might not have everything you want. But you have more than a lot of people.”

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