Enduring pelting rain as they slept outside in cardboard boxes during the evening of Oct. 3, about 100 students at École secondaire catholique Champlain got a better understanding of what it's like to be homeless.
The tarp-covered boxes were set up in the parking lot of a Chelmsford grocery store as part of the school's fourth annual Homeless for a Day event.
“I think it's important because not enough people know how rough and sad it is to be homeless,” Grade 10 student Calvin Bass said, poking his head out of his box to talk to Northern Life at around 7:30 p.m.
“Even if you do it for just a day, it makes you thankful for what you already have.”
He said he also participated in the event last year, and didn't find it too bad, although it wasn't raining.
“Hopefully the rain doesn't get worse,” Bass said.
The event's organizer, Champlain teacher Carol Bradley-Whissell, said she expected the event to raise at least $3,000 to buy winter clothing for Chelmsford-area families living in poverty.
The money was raised through pledges from students and donations from those who dropped by the grocery store parking lot Oct. 3. The students also collected several grocery carts of food donations for the Chelmsford Food Bank.
“I think it teaches my student awareness in regards to poverty, but I think it also teaches them the importance of giving,” Bradley-Whissell said.
“I think the students really realize how lucky they are. They really appreciate their bed and their warm houses after a night like tonight.”
Asking her students to sleep in cardboard boxes is a bit “extreme,” though, because that's not really the face of poverty in this community, she said.
“Most families that are living in poverty actually have a roof over their head,” Bradley-Whissell said.
“It's more noticeable by the fact that they don't have the nicest clothes and things like that.
“I think by making them aware that poverty exists, it makes them a little bit more comprehending towards other students if they don't have the best of the clothes or the best of everything.”
To give students an even better idea of what poverty is like, the teacher also regularly brings groups to volunteer at the Elgin Street Mission's soup kitchen.
The school's principal, Anne Castonguay, said Homeless for a Day is an “amazing experience” for her students.
“They get to live the life of a homeless person,” she said.
“Pretty much it's going to be a real one tonight, because we're expecting rain all night for them. They'll see what it is to be living outside and wanting for food and heat and a house to protect them from the elements.”
The rain didn't dampen Grade 9 student Gabriel Berthiaume's enthusiasm for the event.
“It's just very fun living the experience,” he said.
He said Homeless for a Day gives students an idea of what it's like to live on the streets.
“You're sleeping in a box,” Berthiaume said. “You're really shown what the experience is.”
Grade 9 students Alyssa Thurlow and Tiara Lajeunesse connected two boxes so they could talk to each other during the night. They'd lined the structure with blankets, pillows and sleeping bags.
“I've slept in strange places, so this shouldn't be too bad,” Thurlow said, although she said she was a bit concerned about the rain flooding their boxes.
To make a donation to the Homeless for a Day campaign, phone the school at 705-855-9046.