Like most young people, the students of the North Vancouver School District relish the opportunity to spend the day outside.
But last December, the senior leadership class at Carson Graham Secondary School took things one step further, throwing caution to the wind, not to mention the bitter cold, by spending the night outside on cardboard boxes as part of the Covenant House Sleep Out Movement.
Sleep Out gives participants a glimpse into the life of a homeless youth, raising awareness and funding for the young people who have little choice but to do the same. Proceeds from the Sleep Out movement support mental health and addictions programming at Covenant House Vancouver, which serves homeless youth in the community.
“I got to put myself in their shoes,” said Kseniya Yakovenko, one of the 24 high school students who bundled up and huddled together to brave an icy, winter night in support of the charity and the homeless population it serves. “It made me realize how frightening and tough it must be to do that every single day.”
Nina Lazarevic, another student in Rob Olsen’s leadership class, said the experience taught her “empathy for the people who have to go through that every day without any preparation,” and often without any support at all.
Now the rest of the North Vancouver’s schools are following the high school’s lead and fundraising as a team, marking the first time that a school district has undertaken Sleep Out as a district-wide initiative. On Thursday, Superintendent Mark Pearmain and Upper Lynn Elementary Vice Principal Ilona Wardas took the plunge, sleeping outside just steps from downtown Vancouver’s Emery Barnes Park.
“My turn’s tonight,” said Pearmain, reached by telephone on Thursday afternoon. “So it’s exciting.”
Pearmain, who was inspired to find ways to support the Lower Mainland’s homeless community after working with a youth revitalization project in Zambia this summer, said he didn’t anticipate getting much sleep.
“We’re given a cardboard box, a sleeping bag and a tuque, and out we go. It should be quite the experience for all of us who see and work with youth but sometimes don’t necessarily see the challenges that some of them are really going through,” he said.
Asked if he felt unlucky to be participating in Sleep Out during a rare February cold spell in Vancouver, with temperatures expected to fall below freezing overnight, Pearmain explained that this is the reality many face daily.
“The kids who are homeless and adults who are homeless, they don’t get the choice of when to be homeless,” Pearmain said.
Pearmain drew a link between Sleep Out and the recent focus on social emotional learning in B.C.’s schools — a concept the North Vancouver School District has embraced, and just this week announced as a district priority.
“Part of (social emotional learning) is about having a dialogue about mental health and what it means to be healthy, and being able to talk about things,” Pearmain said. “It was kind of a natural extension for us to focus on our social emotional learning in the school district and also connect with the kids (…) and try and empower them to learn of ways to be able to give back, and recognize the privilege that they have.”
That was the big takeaway for Isabella Kulisek, another Carson Graham leadership student, who said the experience revealed to her how vulnerable homeless youth must feel without the safety and protection that she takes for granted.
“It just made me realize how grateful I am to be living in North Vancouver and having a roof over my head, and food on the table every day,” she said.
But while spending a night shivering atop a makeshift, cardboard bed is a valuable way for people to check their privilege, Covenant House spokesperson Allison Briggs stressed that it’s hardly comparable with true homelessness.
“We are not pretending that sleeping outside for one night in any way compares to what real homelessness is like, but it does provide a glimpse into the harshness of sleeping outside in February,” said Briggs. “The sleepers will not be walking a mile in a homeless young person’s shoes, but they will be taking a small step towards a greater understanding.”
The benefit for North Vancouver students is clear, as is the benefit for the charity, which relies on private donations. $4,000 pays for mental health supports for one youth for one year at Covenant House Vancouver, which provided 1,200 young people access to food, shelter, clothing, and counselling in 2018.
Carson Graham, which plans to make Sleep Out an annual event, raised over $11,000 for Covenant House, far exceeding their $2,000 goal.
The North Vancouver School District aims to raise another $20,000 before the school year is out. They’re already over halfway there.
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