Empathizing With Those In Need
Annual Sleep Out Saturday event gives area young people a taste of what it's like to be homeless
Participants in last year's Sleep Out Saturday set up for the night at St. Peter Catholic Church in Geneva, one of more than 70 sleep-out sites across the western suburbs.
Diderot Tchapda was on the precipice of homelessness. He had no idea what he would do.
Born in Cameroon, he had won entry into America through the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery — a lottery victory of life, he thought — and five years ago, he crossed the Atlantic with his wife and three young sons.
They started out by staying in the basement of a cousin who lived in Glendale Heights, but that relative soon asked them to move out because of renovations. The Tchapdas had come to the U.S. with a few thousand dollars in life savings, but a family of five can go through that quickly. They had nowhere to go.
“I thought that I was going to be homeless because I didn’t have enough income to rent a house,” says Tchapda, who knew little English when first immigrating, as his primary language is French. “I wasn’t prepared to leave (his cousin’s house) with my family, and I didn’t know the system . . . we were kind of lost.”
He went to a social worker, who connected his family with a few nonprofit organizations, including Bridge Communities, a transitional housing and mentorship program based in Glen Ellyn. Bridge provided the Tchapdas with a free apartment and mentors he met with regularly, who helped advise him regarding finances and schooling. During the three years working with Bridge, the Tchapdas added a daughter to their family, and this year, they moved into their own house in Glen Ellyn, built through DuPage Habitat for Humanity.
“It is a very, very nice, affordable house,” he says. “It’s beautiful and we are very happy to have our kids grow up in such a good environment and neighborhood.”
In part out of gratitude, on Saturday, Nov. 7, Tchapda will join about 2,000 people — mostly kids and teens — for Sleep Out Saturday, which increases awareness of homelessness in the area and raises funds for Bridge Communities.
Kids from local youth groups and nonprofit organizations all over the western suburbs will scatter themselves on church lawns, family backyards and in cars to gain empathy for people who are homeless.
Last year, 13-year-old Kendall Butler of Hinsdale cut up giant cardboard refrigerator boxes, used duct tape to build small shelters, and huddled inside them for a night with her friends from Christ Church of Oak Brook. She wore layers of leggings, sweats, long-sleeved shirts and Ugg boots, and still, she shivered throughout the night.
“It made my mind more open,” says Kendall, “and I realized that I take for granted things like having a house and clothes.”
Her brother, Collin, who also participated in Sleep Out Saturday for several years with a group from Christ Church, says the experiences “opened up my eyes to a greater reality.”
The experiences prompted both Collin and Kendall to take mission trips — Collin to San Francisco and Kendall to Nashville — where they had opportunities to serve people who were homeless.
One year, some of the young people participating from Woodridge United Methodist Church realized they knew some of the children who had been homeless, says Dave Buerstetta, the Koinonia pastor at the church who oversees the youth.
“As much as it shouldn’t take that kind of personal connection to bring the issue of homelessness home, it’s just that next level,” says Buerstetta, who lives in Naperville. “It’s no longer this abstract, theoretical thing. It’s affecting someone I know and go to school with. It really helps feed their desire to want to end homelessness and to partner with a group like Bridge that’s doing such good work to make that happen.”
The event also helps youth go beyond such stereotypes as all people who are homeless have drug addictions. At the rally prior to sleeping out, participants hear stories from people like veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or from moms who are fleeing abusive relationships and have no place to go. They learn statistics, like as of 2013, DuPage County had more than 64,000 people with incomes below the poverty line, and that last year, Bridge Communities received more than 2,400 calls asking for information about available housing.
Anne Sadler, who has served as a mentor to Bridge Communities clients, including a single mom who is rebuilding her life after she and her husband separated, says many “people live closer to the edge than you think.”
The client, whom she and two other mentors met with regularly for a two-year period, started out “depressed like you would be when your life has imploded,” but by the end of their time together this spring, as her client began launching her own photography business, Sadler says she “saw somebody who developed belief in herself and her capacity to take care of two children, who’s going to protect herself financially and not run up debt.”
At Woodridge United Methodist, children as young as seven years old have camped overnight on the church lawn, Buerstetta says. He estimates they have raised about $2,000 for Bridge in the past three years and says their goal is to raise $1,000 this year.
The experience of Sleep Out Saturday, he says, helps participants “make that move from sympathy to empathy. It’s one thing to be sympathetic. It’s another to feel it in a teeny tiny way,” says Buerstetta. “We’re not going to pretend for a moment that we’re going to really feel it, because we have all that support and we’ve got a building 50 feet away and a group that provides a meal. But with a night of restless sleep, and the energy you have to expend thinking ‘How am I going to stay warm?,’ we feel a little taste of it.”
The hope, adds Buerstetta, is that “five years from now or 15 years from now, when these kids are the police officers or teachers dealing with a homeless family and clients, and they’re writing local ordinances, they keep these experiences in mind.
“There’s the longer term goal that, ‘This isn’t just a cool experience to do with my friends,’” concludes Buerstetta, “but that years from now, it affects who they become and how they live in a world that needs compassion.”
Facing the Reality of Homelessness Firsthand
An estimated 2,000 teens and young adults will spend a night sleeping in cardboard boxes, portable tents and cars as part of the 12th annual Sleep Out Saturday, a special event designed to raise awareness of the problem of homelessness and raise funds to help local families in need.
Approximately 75 sleep-out sites will be scattered throughout the western suburbs on church lawns, in school parking lots, and in families’ backyards. From beneath sleeping bags and around campfires, participants will experience firsthand the challenges faced by at-risk families.
Sponsored by Bridge Communities, a Glen Ellyn-based transitional housing and mentorship program for homeless families, Sleep Out Saturday will kick off with an outdoor rally in downtown Glen Ellyn (505 Crescent Blvd.) from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 7. Free and open to the public, it will feature live music from the School of Rock, will be emceed by Judy Hsu of ABC7 TV, and include personal testimonials from current Bridge Communities families.
Groups or individuals of all ages are invited to participate in Sleep Out Saturday. To register, make a donation, or learn more about the program, go to www.sleepoutsaturday.org or call Chad Pedigo at 630 545-0610, ext.19.Edit Module