By Jessica Ryan
One chilly evening in October, 144 students gave up their warm beds for one night to sleep out on the ground of the courtyard behind Saint Joseph Regional High School in Montvale. A week of rain before the Oct. 6 event made the ground soggy, and the temperature dropped to the low 40s as the sun set on the group of high schoolers. Students camped out all night in the cold with only a sleeping bag and a cardboard box to keep them warm. The purpose of their sleep-out? To increase awareness of youth homelessness and fundraise over $60,000 for homeless teens.
Saint Joseph Regional High School partners annually with Covenant House, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and supportive services to youth facing homelessness. Each year the high school hosts the Sleep Out Program to educate students about the problem of youth homelessness. Students who participate are confronted with an unfortunate reality that at least 700,000 adolescent minors, and 4.2 million young people, experience yearly in the United States.
The Sleep Out program is open for all students to participate in. First-time participants are shown an informational video about Covenant House and the problems that homeless teens face before they decide to commit to the program. Students who decide to participate ask family and friends to sponsor them through the night with donations going to Covenant House.
On the day of the event, students returned to the school in the evening, and headed to the auditorium, where they listened to representatives from Covenant House speak about youth homelessness. Then, two youths who were once on the streets but now residing at Covenant House stepped up to tell their own stories.
The participants then headed into break-out groups and participated in one-on-one discussions with the teens about their lives, struggles and general experiences.
Students were asked to reflect on one thing they would like to thank God for and one intention they would like to pray for. Afterward, all the students gathered for evening prayer, and a representative from each group shared their group’s prayer intentions. The thought prompt spurred many profound reflections from the participants. Students expressed that after hearing the stories of the homeless youth, they were most thankful to God for the opportunities He has given them, the roofs over their heads, their families, and the guidance of the brothers at St. Joseph’s. One student wrote, “I want to thank God that I don’t have to worry where my next meal is coming from.”
Some intentions the students elected to pray for this year included all those who are homeless so that they may find their way in life; and that people realize that all people deserve to be loved and we need to love one another.
After a small snack, students were given a cardboard box and a trash bag and sent to the courtyard to find a place to sleep. After roughing it in the cold all night, they got up the following day and go on to classes.
John Asselta, Director of the Performing Arts at Saint Joseph Regional and the organizer of the Sleep Out Program, said that the event is purposefully hosted on a school night to create “a more genuine experience” for the students and show them the true impact of homelessness on their health and energy levels.
“The Covenant House Sleep Out experience has truly changed my perspective on homelessness and the effects it can have on people, especially teenagers,” said Jack Laux, a junior at St. Joseph Regional who has participated in the Sleep Out Program for the past three years. “The experience changed my entire view on having a warm house and a comfortable bed to sleep in every night. This is the prime example of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and staying in them for a while. I am so thankful that this event is held every year and I look forward to participating in many more in the future.”
Asselta said that the experience is profound for many students who participate. “It makes them realize how difficult it is for people who have to do it every day,” he said. “And they get to find out that, just by the grace of God, their lives are so different from those of the homeless teens.”
Asselta, a former teacher at St. Francis Prep in Queens, has organized the Sleep Out for the past 11 years at Saint Joseph Regional High School. He started the Sleep Out Program for teens after reconnecting with a former student, Jim White, who became the Executive Director for Covenant House in New Jersey.
“When I heard about Covenant House’s Sleep-Out program, which was only designed for adult professionals at the time, I wondered why we couldn’t do this with high school students,” Asselta said. Together with White, Asselta began hosting Sleep-Outs with his students to raise money for Covenant House.
“I wish for the students who participate in growing in appreciation of all they have been given, believe that to whom much is given much is expected, and to want to make a difference in the lives of people who have less than them,” Asselta said.
The first Sleep Out at the school only had 30 participants, but the program has grown significantly in the past decade. This year’s sleepout included 144 participants and raised over $60,000.
Saint Joseph Regional High School annually hosts the largest Covenant House Student Sleep Out in the country. In its largest year, the school had more tham 200 students participate. In 11 years, over 1,000 students have slept out as a part of the program, and a total of $578,000 has been raised for Covenant House. The money raised through the Sleep Out Program benefits homeless adolescents, providing food, clothing, resources, education, counseling and transitional services to teens with no place to sleep or support networks to turn to for help.