MONTVALE, N.J. ‒ Sleeping outside in late October, equipped only with a cardboard box is not the most attractive proposition. It is, however, far better than the experience of many homeless teens, who have to sleep outside on a nightly basis.
One hundred seventy students of St. Joseph Regional High School, fully one-third of the student body, got a first-hand taste of that experience on Tuesday, October 30, when they spent the night in the school courtyard in solidarity with the homeless teenagers of Covenant House.
Aside from gaining a greater appreciation of the plight of those who have no home to go to, the students also raised more than $74,000 in support of Covenant House and its programs. It was the seventh consecutive year that the North Jersey high school has sponsored the Sleep Out, and over that span, their efforts have raised more than $200,000 for the cause.
The evening began shortly after 9:30, when everyone assembled in SJR’s Inserra Theater to meet three young men who got themselves off the streets by putting their trust in Covenant House. All three were the victims of broken families and parents who were simply unable to provide for them; each of them has earned his high school diploma and is now on the road to earning his college degree.
Students then broke into small groups to talk about what they had heard and share their reactions to the stories they’d been told. After a closing prayer, the group, dressed in jackets and sweats and outfitted only with cardboard boxes and sleeping bags, went outside to sleep in temperatures that fell below freezing.
By 7:00 am, everyone was back in the building with a long day of school in front of them. “An important part of the experience is making it through the next day’s classes,” said SJR Director of Campus Ministry Joe LoGiudice. “If you simply pack up your stuff and go home to bed, it’s hard to say you’ve shown much solidarity. The homeless need to get through their day no matter how miserable the previous night has been. They don’t get any timeouts from being homeless.”
Despite the sacrifices involved, participation in the program has grown from year to year, with this year’s turnout the largest of any high school in the country. Fifty-seven members of the Green Knights football team, along with Head Coach Augie Hoffmann ‘99, spent the night outside.
“We want our kids to recognize how fortunate they are and how quickly their fortunes can turn,” said Coach Hoffmann. “We want to raise some money and help kids that don’t always have a place to lay their heads at night.”
Senior Gavin O’Sullivan said, “The Sleep Out is something everyone should do during their time at SJR to give back to those who need our help to make it out of their situation. Although it was hard to sleep outside for one night, we can resume our lives afterwards. The homeless don’t have that option.”
Classmate Jake Yoffee concurred, saying, “Sometimes we think the stuff we go through is so hard, but a night like this makes me realize how privileged I really am. The whole experience was a humbling one, and something I will reflect on for the rest of my life.”
“In the end, the goal is to raise awareness,” said Mr. John Asselta, who has coordinated the Sleep Out at SJR for seven years. “I heard our students share how touched they were by the homeless teens they had just met, how surprised they were by just how bright and talented the Covenant House residents were and how determined they are to better themselves despite the circumstances they have had to deal with. The fundraising aspect of the event makes a real difference today, of course, but the understanding and appreciation our kids gain about the plight of other kids not so very different from themselves is an experience that will make a difference for a lifetime.”