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High school students experience homelessness at 'sleepout'

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As Hurricane Sandy headed toward the East Coast on Saturday night, 120 high school students prepared to spend the night in makeshift shelters in cardboard boxes in the back parking lot of Our Daily Bread Employment Center in downtown Baltimore.

"We've got a baby crib kind of plan," said Victoria Lizardo, of Rosedale, a student at Chesapeake High School, as she collaborated with several other teens on the construction of he cardboard boxes into crib-like shelters. Lizardo's looked as sturdy and spacious as a cardboard abode could look.

"Somebody's going to live in it," said Alex Kuethe, of Glen Burnie, a senior at Mount St. Joseph High.

But there was one flaw.

"It needs a door," said Eric Simpson, project manager for the construction company Whiting Turner, one of several consultants to 120 area juniors and seniors, all building similar shelters.

The occasion was the second annual Baltimore Sleepout for the Homeless, sponsored by Catholic Charities' Our Daily Bread and Arbutus-based Jobs, Housing & Recovery Inc.

The event was limited to upper-school students, who volunteered for a chance to experience homelessness and gain service hours they need to graduate.

Wearing backpacks and carrying sleeping bags, the teens spent the night as if they were homeless, from 6:30 p.m. Saturday to 6:30 a.m. Sunday.

The event had a festive air, as a deejay spun popular songs and sleepout sponsors handed out gift cards for those who had the most structurally sound, spacious and waterproof boxes.

But the serious nature of the sleepout wasn't lost on students such as Caroline Williams, of Catonsville, a senior at Mount de Sales Academy.

Williams said she came "to understand what (the homeless) go through every day."

And it drove home to Williams how far removed she is from homelessness.

"We should be thankful for the school we go to," she said.

The impending storm, Hurricane Sandy, due to hit the area early in the week, added a sense of urgency and pathos for students like Cece Volker, of Towson, a senior at Maryvale Preparatory School.

"It's really sad to think about," Volker said as she helped Lizardo and several other students build their shelters. "Before this, I didn't think about all the hardships people go through. This is real."

"It's a reality check," said Shannon Collyer, campus minister at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville.

"I think it will be a nice teaching moment," said Bob Keenan, a spokesman for Catholic Charities.

"It's scary," said Maryvale Preparatory School senior Caroline Frederico, of Towson. "You (wouldn't) know where you're going to go" in a storm.

The storm 'makes it that much more sad'

An estimated 4,000 homeless people are living on the streets of Baltimore at any one time, event organizers said.

"(The storm) just makes it that much more sad," said Maryvale senior Brianna Boyd, of Hunt Valley. "We'll be at home — and a lot of people don't have a home."

In addition to building shelters, the students spent the night learning how to live on a poverty-level income, a budgeting exercise called Living on the Edge. They also heard from various speakers through the night and learned about various reasons for homelessness, from mental illness and substance abuse to former prison inmates struggling to re-enter society and youths who may be having trouble with life after leaving foster care.

In the morning, students cooked and served breakfast for the homeless.

This year's event was bigger than last year's, with 13 school participating, compared to nine in 2011.

For Joe Cordella, director of campus ministry at Loyola Blakefield High School, the entire event was a teachable moment.

"We really stress solidarity with the poor and service over charity," said Cordella, of Towson.

"I want a better understanding of homeless people on a personal level," said Jack Brower, of Catonsville, a senior at Loyola-Blakefield. "You see them on the road, but you don't know what they're doing. It's a distant relationship."

"I'm hoping to understand homeless people and hear their stories," said Loyola-Blakefield junior Joey Benassi, of Rodgers Forge.

"It's important for the boys to be exposed to a life they normally would not be exposed to," said Pete Kwiterovich, of Roland Park, head of the Gilman middle school, one of many teachers in the area who helped out at the event.

In conjunction with last week's Gilman football game against McDonogh School in Owings Mills, students and families from both schools conducted a drive to collect blankets and clothing for Jobs, Housing & Recovery to distribute to the needy.

Gilman junior Zach Ranen, of Mount Washington, said he wanted the public to learn from the event, too.

"I think it's important to raise awareness," Ranen said.

"Coming from an elite private school, it's good to see how people less fortunate that us live," said Cam Wade, a senior from the Park Heights area.

Handing out commemorative T-shirts at the sleepout were Yvonne Jauregui, a nursing supervisor for the organization Health Care for the Homeless, and her 14-year-old daughter, Shantha, a sophomore at Catonsville High.

That wasn't one of the schools participating in this year's sleepout and Shantha Jauregui was too young to participate anyway.

But she said if her school was interested in having its students participate at next year's sleepout, "I would be honored to."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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