By David Kilby | Correspondent
Using cardboard boxes donated by parishioners, 18 youngsters constructed their own makeshift homes outside St. Anselm Church, Wayside, to sleep in on the mid-summer evening of Aug. 25 as part of an effort to learn more about homelessness.
“A great number of people in our country experience what it’s like to be homeless,” said Brent Schaflin, a young member of the parish. “We should feel the same pain they do.”
Photo Gallery: Cardboard Box City at St. Anselm Church
Fran Burke, St. Anselm Parish junior high religious education director and coordinator of the event, said she hoped sleeping in a cardboard box would help the group of seventh- and eighth-graders from area parishes gain an awareness of a community they many not interact with often.
“They don’t think about homelessness on a regular basis,” she said, adding that the night wouldn’t be an easy one. “No popcorn tonight, or chips, no electronics.”
The parish’s first Cardboard Box City event included having the youngsters construct their own shelters in the church parking lot, a scavenger hunt and talks from representatives of homeless ministries Harbor House in Toms River, which assists runaway, abused and neglected youth ages 10-21, and Family Promise, a nationwide ministry that began in New Jersey.
Sue Bove, coordinator of the Family Promise program in Monmouth County, spoke about the common causes of homelessness and what the youngsters can do to help those without homes in their area. She said loss of work, medical expenses and the conversion of apartments to more expensive condominiums are common causes of homelessness.
Under the Family Promise program, a dozen church communities in Monmouth County alternate in accommodating homeless families for one week each over a 12-week cycle. With volunteers converting classrooms into bedrooms for homeless families, the program can accommodate 14 people at a time. Program volunteers visit and have dinner with the families, and some stay with them in the church overnight.
“We try and make these classrooms as homey as we can, because that’s where they’ll be living for the week,” Bove said.
Before making their cardboard box homes, the youth had dinner in the same church hall where the Family Promise families would typically eat their meals. Bove told the youngsters that the families usually have children ages one to six.
Encouraging them to participate in Family Promise, she said, “They are so thrilled to have kids like you come in and say, ‘Want to play?’”
Heidi Hartman, director of youth services for Harbor House, spoke about how the organization helps youth and teenagers, some of whom ran away from home. Many spend one night at a friend’s house, and the next with another friend, Hartman explained, whereas Harbor House can help provide stability and normalcy.
“Typically homeless teenagers are your peers,” she told the young people. “They look like you, talk like you.”
After the talks, the youngsters went outside and discussed best ways to construct their temporary homes for the night, using nothing but cardboard boxes and tape. Five adult chaperones were on hand. There was also a scavenger hunt in which the group searched for deodorant, toothbrushes and other items donated by parents that would in turn be donated to homeless shelters.
Father Eugene Vavrick, parish pastor, said homelessness is an issue the parish community has addressed often.
“It’s a great idea for our junior high youth to grow in awareness of the problem,” he said as he watched the young teens construct their cardboard houses. “We’ve been longtime supporters of Harbor House, which is the only house for homeless teens in Monmouth and Ocean County.”
The youth also discussed some of the reasons they wanted to participate in the Cardboard Box City.
“I thought it would be a good idea to see what it was like, and to appreciate what I have and what others don’t,” said Emilia Redman of St. Michael Parish, West End. “Now if I see a homeless person … I’ll know what they go through on a daily basis.”
Added Dylan Desane of St. Anselm Parish, “We have nice houses and we take stuff for granted, so it’s good to get to feel what it’s like for other people.”