Laurel youth groups experience being homeless for 20-hour fundraiser

About 60 students from five church youth groups set up temporary homes inside camping tents outside Bethany Community Church over the weekend to raise awareness of homelessness and funds for homeless support programs through the New Day nonprofit organization.

Over a 20-hour period, from 6 p.m. Friday to 2 p.m. Saturday, students listened to stories from those impacted by homelessness, while gaining a better understanding of how homelessness impacts Laurel. Wrenn Skidmore, director at New Day, said participating students were asked to find at least five pledges of $1 an hour to benefit the nonprofit's programs to help the homeless.

New Day programs offer spiritual mentoring through Bible study and group support; breakfast gatherings Friday mornings in Laurel at Denny's restaurant, for men, and Linny's Deli, for women; as well as professional support to find employment.

What started as an email blast evolved into the "a day in the life" event, Skidmore said. Participating churches included Bethany Community Church; Our Savior Lutheran Church; First United Methodist Church of Laurel; First Baptist Church of Laurel; and St. Mark's United Methodist Church.

"A lot of what the youth are looking for is a real-world experience and a way to learn about relevant topics and issues that are impacting the community," Skidmore said. "There can be a stereotypical look, age or skin color of a homeless person, but that's not necessarily the case. We found that youth today are very willing to get involved for causes that they find relevant."

For example, she said, New Day staff saw a large number of homeless individuals under the age of 25 during last winter's shelter program that moves each week from church to church. Tommy Rowe, an associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Laurel, said his congregation's participation in the winter shelter program gives the homeless a warm place to stay, but this collaborative project helps those in need year-round.

"We want to be part of a solution that would not just be a wintertime solution, but also an ongoing solution," he said.

Friday night, youth groups from each congregation began their homeless experience as they set up their tents outside Bethany Community Church and ate dinner provided by the church's soup kitchen. The following morning, students broke up into groups for a series of activities and fundraising efforts throughout Laurel.

Rowe said one endeavor on Saturday had students clean up trash along a section of the Patuxent River, where homeless people may set up their "tent village" to live.

"We also went to a couple of the grocery stores and asked for donations of canned foods that we will give to agencies to help the homeless," Rowe said. "[Students] can go to a house that has a refrigerator and they don't think anything about it. It's normal for them. They take that for granted. Part of this is to give them appreciation for the blessings that they have."

Bethany's director of youth ministry, Tim Quigg, said the immersion experience helped students feel compassion for those who are homeless, and showed how congregations can act as one to support the homeless and the New Day nonprofit.

"We talk about what leads to homelessness and how can we support each other so that it doesn't happen to us," he said. "I've talked to several homeless people who've had great jobs and education. They're people who have value and worth and are not so different than us."

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