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Thinking inside the box: Youth get a feel for what it’s like being homeless

A cool breeze was blowing and the bugs were singing at top volume Friday night as members of Eden United Methodist Church in Jonesborough tried to sleep outside in cardboard boxes, as part of their Mission Awareness Weekend.
“It’s hard sleeping on asphalt all night, and sleeping in a small water heater box. They are kind of claustrophobic,” said Carolyn Kerr, organizer of the event, and volunteer youth leader.
Kerr, along with seven other adult volunteers, and 13 kids, willingly bunked outside in their church parking lot to get a taste of what life would be like as a homeless person.
The less-than-restful slumber party punctuated a labor intensive 24 hours that made up the church’s sixth annual Mission Awareness Weekend.
The evening kicked off with a scavenger hunt for canned food, which will be donated to the Jonesborough Area Ministerial Association’s Food Pantry.
Kids, and their adult chaperones knocked on the doors of several nearby neighborhood homes asking for canned goods.
During the food drive Kerr saw impressive examples of generosity in total strangers, who were hit hard by the recession. People who claimed to be recently unemployed just dug a little deeper to find food in their pantries for church volunteers.
Many of the young participants have family members coping with job loss.
“Almost every family in that room of 11 or 12 kids had an experience with that, and knew that their family had struggled,” she said. “It’s not that they’re homeless, it’s just rough right now.”
The youth group collected a total of 180 cans of food.
“I had them stacked in the sanctuary in a giant pyramid. I like the congregation to know that it’s not all fun and games,” Kerr said.
Kerr has used the event to shine a spotlight at poverty’s problems a different way each year.
“Last year it was a mission focus on what Johnson City had to offer,” she said. “So we were on a midnight scavenger hunt to the Salvation Army, and the Manna House, and Interfaith Hospitality and all that.”
This year the group also attended the ground breaking ceremony at the Habitat for Humanity site in Jonesborough, where they pitched in to help the builder-volunteers.
Kerr thinks helping children become aware of society’s problems will galvanize them to help ease human suffering today and in the future.
“Once your eyes are open you see the problem, and if you expose a child when they are younger, then hopefully as they become an adult they will continue to do community service work,” she explained.
Ashley Tipton, of Jonesborough, was happy, but obviously sleepy Saturday morning, after only four hours of shut-eye in her box.
This was 18-year-old Tipton’s fourth year participating in the service weekend. She leaves for college in two weeks where she says she hopes to continue volunteering.
“It’s important to make it heard that there are people that are hungry in our community, who can’t provide for their families,” she said. “Going out and helping puts it out there even more; people are bound to talk about it.”