Sleep Out Saturday teaches teens about homelessness
Blair Nelson has been sleeping outside in a cardboard box or a tent one night each year for a long time now.
He plans to do it again this Saturday, Nov. 2, when DuPage's Sleep Out Saturday observance brings church and family groups together at multiple sites across the county for a brief experience with homelessness.
"We sleep outside on the church campus," said Nelson, youth and young adult minister at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Glen Ellyn. "We get the kids together Saturday afternoon to build their shelters."
Some set up tents, others build cardboard shelters against the elements. Some even elect to sleep inside vehicles.
Similar scenarios are scheduled to unfold across DuPage.
"We have 50 groups total -- 26 large groups and church groups and 24 families," said Lisa Doyle of Bridge Communities, a nonprofit organization in Glen Ellyn that provides temporary housing and other transitional services for homeless families in DuPage County.
Sleep Out Saturday raises money and awareness for the organization.
"Our church has been involved with Bridge for years," Nelson said. "Our church is very mission-oriented. This is not a bolt out of the blue for us. I fully believe in Bridge. It's really needed."
Nelson said the Sleep Out Saturday group at Southminster is a combination of children and adults.
"They get to do something constructive. They also learn about homelessness. They get a sense of what it's like," Nelson said. "The kids get to see what Bridge Communities can accomplish. That really fired them up."
After the outdoor shelters are constructed, the group eats together.
"We have a soup kitchen-style meal," he said.
Warming themselves over a fire pit, the group learns about homelessness through an educational presentation before retiring to their tents and shelters. In the past, he said, former Bridge clients have told their stories to the group as part of the educational program.
Nelson said meeting someone who has actually been in that situation was impactful, especially for the middle school and high school students in Nelson's ministry at the camp out.
Lisa McNeeley of Naperville is a graduate of the Bridge Communities transitional housing program.
In 2013, after a divorce, she and her two children found themselves in need of housing. Through Bridge Communities and Families Helping Families, a nonprofit group that works with Bridge, the family moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Naperville while McNeeley finished her education.
"For me, it wasn't that I didn't know how to budget my money, it was that I didn't have any money to budget," she said. "When I got into the program, I was just finishing my classes."
Since then, she has become a licensed and certified occupational therapy assistant, working with children with autism, Down syndrome and developmental delays. She also volunteers to help with Families Helping Families programs designed to help people learn how to budget and save money.
In 2015, McNeeley's family moved into a house in south Naperville. Her daughter, 17, is a high school junior and her son, 20, works full-time in Chicago.
McNeeley said she is grateful for the help she and her family received when they were facing challenging circumstances.
"Without the program, we wouldn't be where we are today," she said.
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Sleep Out Saturday
When: Saturday, Nov. 2
Where: Sites across DuPage County
Info: bridgecommunities.org or (630) 545-0610