By Lynn Wilkinson
Shelburne students will participate in the Spectrum Student Sleep Out for the fourth year in a row. Hundreds of adults and students in Burlington and its surrounding areas will also sleep out in solidarity with homeless youth during the weekend of March 23 – 25.
The event raises money for Spectrum Youth and Family Services. Every year Spectrum provides over 2,000 youth with shelter, food, mental health counseling, addiction treatment, mentoring, and life-skills coaching – helping them build and prepare for future success and independence.
This mission inspires the Shelburne students. Team captain and sixth-grader Maddie Connery says she participates in the Sleep Out “because I want struggling teens and young adults to know I have their backs. That they will get help when they need it most. That they matter.”
There is a reason that this event is held each year in March in Vermont rather than during the summer months. By sleeping out in trying conditions, the students are forced to think about what it feels like to be homeless. It is uncomfortable, cold, and noisy. Many of them get almost no sleep.
Another team captain, fourth-grader Teryn Hytten, explains “It can be an eye-opening experience, the first year we slept out it rained and snowed. Last year it was 5 degrees F and the train went through very early in the morning. In both cases, it was cold, uncomfortable, and hard to sleep.”
Student participants begin learning about homelessness weeks in advance, by reading a novel. This year, “Almost Home” by Joan Bauer will help them empathize with the experience of their homeless peers. The evening of the event, activities include a bare bones meal – participants can spend $3 on a food item to be added to a soup. In past years, students have held a vigil in Shelburne Village where they carried signs in support of homeless people. They sung Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a song with special meaning because Guthrie himself was once homeless.
Each year, a former Spectrum client speaks to the group. The students questions are thoughtful and probing. “What does abuse mean?” one student asked last year. The students reflect on their experience in journals. In the course of the night, they each gain a deeper appreciation for a warm bed, a hot meal, safety, and their families.
Shelburne students took over some of the responsibility for coordinating the event last year and are already hard at work planning this year’s Shelburne Student Sleep Out. A group of five team captains in the 4th and 6th grades are planning the activities and logistics, and recruiting volunteers. The students take their roles seriously. Robbie Fragola and Ian Story affirm that it has been a good experience to get behind the scenes. “We are old enough to lead book discussions, help plan events, and do some of the work. It gives us an appreciation for how much work it takes and we only do it for one night. The staff at Spectrum works this hard year-round,” said Fragola and Story.
And in the end, it is a community affair. Logan Hytten, a team captain and sixth-grader said, “it takes a village and that includes everyone in Shelburne. The first year we started small; last year our community, family, and friends showed that they really care by helping us raise more than $10,000. This year we are hoping our community and businesses open their hearts again and we raise even more to lend a hand and help change lives. Donations no matter the amount make a big difference.”
To check out more about the Shelburne Team’s progress or to donate, you can go to: http://give.spectrumvt.org/goto/Shelburne.
The team wants to thank the businesses that have helped make the event possible during past years – Flying Pig, Shelburne Supermarket, The Town of Shelburne, Shelburne Police Department, and the Shelburne Community School and third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade teachers.
This year will also include the sixth-grade teachers, and one of the school’s principals is volunteering to sleep out with the students. After a cold night with little sleep, inevitably the students emerge from their tents with huge smiles on their faces. They feel empowered to make a difference in their community, and their sense of accomplishment is palpable.