Sleep Out Saturday a lesson about homelessness

People driving or strolling by St. Petronille's Catholic Church in Glen Ellyn on Saturday may be surprised to see a ragtag collection of makeshift tents, cardboard boxes and improvised lean-tos in the parking lot.

"People see us there. People coming and going from church see us that night," said Mary Miller, youth ministry pastor at St. Petronille's.

Being seen is part of the idea behind Sleep Out Saturday, a benefit for the Glen Ellyn-based Bridge Communities charity that provides transitional housing and support for people in need.

Miller and her husband have been among the adults, teens and children gathering each November for the past 14 years to experience, for one night, what it's like to be homeless.

The group meeting at St. Petronille's includes that church's parishioners as well as groups from other churches and organizations.

"Bridge Communities asked us to be a site for people to sleep at. There are people coming from all over the county," Miller said.

Some 41 other sites throughout the Western suburbs will be hosting similar sleep outs Saturday, said Margo Matthew, Bridge Communities grants director.

One of the people heading to St. Petronille's is 17-year-old Caroline Kuefler, a St. Petronille parishioner and youth group member who will be participating in Sleep Out Saturday for the third time.

"I love doing it because the whole community comes together. I think it's really inspirational," the Glenbard West High School senior said.

Kuefler said each of the past two years the event night was a chilly one.

"The first year, we had a giant tent and we stuffed it with as many bodies as we could get inside the tent," she said.

Last year, she and her friends set up hammocks slung between trees, an idea that proved unwise, she said, when the cold winds whipped through the campsite.

"It really gives you a taste of what it's like to be homeless," she said. "You usually wake up about every 20 minutes. It's usually the cold that wakes you up."

This year, she said, most people will use tents, though she plans to spend the night inside a cardboard box.

Again, she expects sleep to be elusive.

"I usually set aside about five hours to sleep the next morning," she said.

The nonprofit organization hopes to raise $115,000 this year through pledged donations made on behalf of participants of Sleep Out Saturday. It's the organization's largest fundraising event of the year, Matthew said.

Bridge Communities uses the money to provide transitional housing, employment counseling, tutoring and case management to mentor families in need, she said. Since Bridge Communities was founded 29 years ago, she said, 850 families have received help, with about 130 families served each year.

Before participants crawl inside sleeping bags and prepare to brave the weather in tents or inside boxes or vehicles, many attend a 6 p.m. rally outside the Bridge Communities headquarters a few blocks away from St. Petronille's.

"We always have a client family speak. Typically it's a mom with a couple of children," Matthew said. "And we show a video every year."

There's also music from live bands.

The festive atmosphere is something that surprised Kuefler the first time out.

"Every single year I've gone to the rally, I've teared up. The speakers are super motivational and inspirational. People come out and hand you stuff and invite you to their bonfire," she said. "I didn't expect how much of a celebration this was."

If you go

What: Sleep Out Saturday

Who: Bridge Communities

When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4

Where: Bridge Communities, 505 Crescent Blvd., Glen Ellyn

Cost: Free; pledge donations accepted


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