Kids learn what it's like to be homeless - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Kids learn what it's like to be homeless

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Posted: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:28 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Last Friday, 15 dedicated students staying overnight at Marana Middle School had to share space with classmates attending a school dance.

"We are going to be homeless for the night," said Evan Cloutier, 14, a seventh-grader. He pointed to a spot of concrete near the school's auditorium crowded with backpacks and blankets. "We don't have any money, and they won't allow homeless people in to the dance."

The students set up a makeshift line of white fence and caution tape to separate themselves from the dancers, instead spending that time making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to pass out at a local park and keeping a 24-hour fast "so that when we pass the food out, we will know what it's like to be hungry," said Sydney Martyn, 14, an eighth-grader.

Everything, save toiletries, that the 15 students had was confiscated during the camp. That also meant no cell phones and no other electronics or personal items, said Ivy Sweeney, Marana Middle School's drama teacher and supervisor of the school's first-ever homeless awareness camp.

Camp participants fasted, gave up their cell phones, and agreed to sleep on the concrete for a night. On Saturday, the kids took sack lunches they made and donated items from toiletries to clothing to Santa Rita Park, "because we found out there are more homeless there than almost anywhere else in Tucson," Martyn said.

Without a steady fund, the camp survived solely on donations from classmates, staff and parents, who gave a "huge amount. We have two long lunch tables full of donated items," Sweeney said.

"Everything we are using and giving away is completely donated," Martyn said. "Pretty much the whole school has pitched in for this."

Sweeney said she began developing the idea of hosting a homeless awareness camp in one of her math-based service leaning classes, a set of classes aimed at incorporating service-based activities into the school's regular curriculum.

"We did a lot of research and found out that there were a lot of homeless youth in Pima County," she said. "Even a lot are going to this school. It was eye-opening stuff."

So, she said, Marana Middle School decided to host the overnight camp "to call attention to this issue and to make sure that people know how serious this is."

While Sweeney acted as supervisor of the service event, which was sponsored by several of the school's clubs, it was completely student-fueled. "The students are the real base of this experiment," she said. "I just happen to be overseeing it."

Relinquishing his cell phone, fasting, and sleeping overnight on a concrete floor "will be pretty challenging," 13-year-old T.J. Giedraitis said.

"I'm hungry, and my cell phone is my best friend, but I'll be giving service with my friends, so I'm happy," the seventh-grader said Friday afternoon.

He's wanted to help the homeless since he first started noticing homeless men pass him on the way to school a few years ago. With the camp and donations, "I can" help, he said. Through participation, "I get to experience what they are experiencing and help them out."

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