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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2010

Monroe County teens raise awareness of homelessness

MONROE -- Fifteen-year-old Ryan Gentil peeled himself off the freezing ground early Saturday, emerged from a cardboard box outside Monroe High School in the pre-dawn hours, and hauled it inside.

The teenager wasn't loitering, waiting in line for concert tickets, or goofing off -- some of the reasons adults might think a kid stays outside all night in the freezing cold.

He and about 20 other students from school just outside the city limits in Monroe Township spent Friday night into early Saturday outside to raise homeless awareness and collect money for a specific needy family.

"I really wanted to raise awareness because a lot of people don't take the effort to help homeless people in any way or do something about it," Ryan said.

The temperature outside the school dipped early Saturday to about 11 degrees and the windchill made it feel like 3 degrees.

Melissa Haas, 16, a junior, left, and Interact Club adviser Sue Jones warm themselves in front of fire barrels. Melissa Haas, 16, a junior, left, and Interact Club adviser Sue Jones warm themselves in front of fire barrels.
JETTA FRASER / TOLEDO BLADE Enlarge

Even with the teens bundled up and huddled together inside a makeshift home from a refrigerator cardboard box, the chill was too much for the teacher in charge of the project to let them stay outside.

"Some of the kids were trying to stick it out, but once it got to be that cold, at about 4 a.m., I had them come inside," said Sue Jones, a Monroe biology and forensic science teacher. "They still had to sleep on the concrete floor as if it were open for the homeless to spend the night."

By Saturday afternoon, several teens were back inside the box, huddled under blankets, while others gathered around fires burning inside 50-gallon metal drums.

Their faces were dirty with ash from the smoldering wood.

The event was planned two months in advance and the students spent that time soliciting donations. The teenagers are members of the Interact Club, which is sponsored by Rotary for young people ages 12 to 18.

Interact clubs are sponsored by individual Rotary clubs, which provide support and guidance, but they are self-governing and self-supporting, Ms. Jones said.

The experiment for the students -- some of whom had never had any experiences with homeless people -- raised more than $1,000 in money and donations.

She said the group has adopted a family of six, including four girls under 9 years old.

They will go Monday to buy gifts for the family and deliver those gifts Tuesday. Ms. Jones said the donations may have been generous enough to allow for adopting a second family.

She said she was informed by the Salvation Army that more than 250 families are living in emergency shelters in the Monroe area.

In Lucas County, Deborah Conklin, director of the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board, said the students' project was valuable because it helps people realize how the homeless manage to make do.

"Some people think homeless people are slow-witted and not resourceful. We underestimate how brave and strong the homeless can be," Ms. Conklin said.

She said about 3,000 people a year experience homelessness in Toledo, counting those in emergency and transitional shelters and living on the streets and in precarious and doubled-up situations.

"I think some of them had exposure to homeless people, but this really gives them an idea of what it is like," Ms. Jones said of her students.

She admitted that other Monroe High School teachers thought the idea was crazy and none volunteered to spend the night outdoors.

School security and Ms. Jones stood guard throughout the night.

High School Senior Nichole Dow, 18, is familiar with homelessness on a personal level.

"My mom and her boyfriend were homeless for a few months," Miss Dow said. "They had a van that didn't have any heat and they had no place to stay, but they have a place now."

Scott Walters, 15, was among the last students to make it inside last night.

"It was quite cold, but I wanted to stay outside longer and finish it," he said.

Breanna Krieger, 15, said the experience opened her eyes to the plight of the homeless.

"I couldn't imagine this every night and not knowing where my next meal would come from," she said.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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