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Sleep out for homeless youth

Church hosts student edition of Covenant House challenge

Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish (OLGC) in Moorestown will host a special student edition of the Covenant House Sleep Out initiative Friday to raise awareness of the youth homelessness crisis.

Registration for the 7 p.m. Sleep Out is open to students from eighth grade through high school, along with young adults. Parents are welcome as chaperones.

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“The biggest thing that we want to communicate at Sleep Out is, our young people aren’t too different than you,” said Kirsten Corley, student initiatives officer for Covenant House New Jersey, of the organization’s homeless population.

“The biggest difference is circumstances beyond our young people’s control … and they might not have been as lucky as you are to have a loving family and getting support,” she added. “And if that had been the case, their situation might be different.”

Sleep Out participants raise critical funds to keep Covenant House’s doors open for the thousands of young people who will seek its shelter each year, according to sleepout.org. The money raised through Sleep Out funds vital services like medical care, legal assistance, education opportunities, vocational training and therapeutic services.

“What we really try to do at Sleep Out is draw the parallel between students who are sleeping out and our young people, and we bring young people to sleep out and they get to hang out with the students throughout the night, and what we see often is friendships built,” Corley explained.

“ … Throughout the program, we really try to focus on empathy and unconditional love and absolute respect.”

Registration is required both by Covenant House and Our Lady of Good Counsel to ensure the safe operation of the initiative, according to olgcnj.org. All participants under the age of 18 require a parent’s permission form that includes emergency contact information.

Participants provide their own sleeping bags and the Sleep Out will take place in the church parking lot, weather permitting. Food and beverages will be provided, along with morning bagels. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the initiative will be held in the parish gymnasium.

Covenant House has shelters in Newark, Atlantic City, Asbury Park and Camden and almost all of its work is funded by private donations. The Sleep Out initiative has been in existence for almost a decade.

Father Jim Grogan has participated in or led Sleep Outs for six years. This year, a community version of the initiative was held on March 1, the same evening as the parish’s confirmation services, so Covenant House partnered with local teens who’ve participated in past Sleep Out events to host a student version.

“The nature of homelessness – it is not a desire of the people who get caught in that, it’s a sad reality of our social services provided at the state level, and that’s not blaming the state of New Jersey, because it’s similar in every state in the union,” Grogan noted. “But homelessness is the result of the time in which foster care stops …

“I hope that coming out of participating in (this), most of the students are going to be high-school age themselves, so they are going to be able to make a connection with how fragile their life would be if they suddenly found themselves having to live on the street.”

Moorestown High students Olivia Barnes, Neeka Vojdani and Lauren Schaffer will participate in the Sleep Out and did so last year in Camden. They’ve all learned something different about the organization.

“I think that hearing from the people that work there and hearing from the people who have gone through Covenant House and have made it out of there has been really great … and it’s really shown me how great the work (is) that Covenant House does,” Barnes observed.

“They’re really dedicated to improving the lives of homeless youth in specific areas … and that makes it feel more tangible.”

“Just hearing from the people who actually lived through homelessness, that was really impactful on me,” Vojdani recalled, “and everybody present there as well. And also I think it allows for youth to get involved and it’s a way to not just advocate and raise awareness for the cause, but also raise funds as well.

“People who live in Moorestown, sometimes we take the things we have for granted,” Vojdani added, “and I think just participating in the event would allow us to gain insight into the not-so-great living conditions of other people who are our age.”

“I definitely learned a lot about homelessness and how the Covenant House found a good solution,” Schaffer revealed. “They’re doing a really amazing job of helping with that by using their spaces to help people go to school or get jobs.

“Their goal isn’t to keep them there, it’s actually to get them out but in a good way.”


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