I was homeless. My experience sleeping in a cardboard box last night. C-U At Home's One Winter Night.
Sweet Lemonade Photography, capturing life's sweetest moments in central Illinois and beyond. Located in Mahomet, Illinois, Sweet Lemonade Photography photographs in Champaign and surrounding counties frequently and also travels nation wide and internationally for weddings and destination senior sessions.
About 6 months ago, I committed myself and my entire Sweet Lemonade Photography high school senior VIP team (current juniors learn more about the VIP program) to sleeping in a cardboard box for one night to help raise awareness and money for CU at Home who assists friends in our community without an address.
I love to photograph high school students and in addition to the fun experience of their senior portrait session, for my VIP team, I hold quarterly social activities, offer styled shoots and find ways for our group to give back to the community.
Each year CU at Home hosts One Winter Night, an opportunity for anyone to raise awareness and collect donations for CU at Home by sleeping in a cardboard box on the streets in downtown Champaign. This event is their major fundraiser ($230,000 is this year's goal) to help the homeless in the community with transportation, offering The Phoenix Drop-In Center for warmth, companionship, and assistance during the daytime hours as well as opening their doors for emergency warming hours when the temperature outside drops dangerously low.
As I prepared for the evening, I was gathering layers and layers of clothes and pulled out my Arctic Cat snowmobiling pants and winter jacket. Those used to see more action about 20 years ago when we would travel in a caravan to Wyoming and South Dakota to spend days with a large group of friends enjoying the almost untouched trails in the area. Sledding in those parts of the US has seemingly unending miles of trails, are quiet, peaceful and just magical. So lots of memories came back as I pulled those out and was hopeful they'd keep me warm.
I stopped at Lowe's and without hesitation bought tarps that I had learned can help keep the cold and wind at bay a bit by wrapping them around your cardboard box. As I spent $40 on tarps in an attempt to keep me a bit warmer, all I could think about was the people that will benefit from the donations raised through this event don't have money to spend frivolously on something like that. I couldn't help but think, should I put the tarps back and just give the organization another $40. Selfishly, I chose to spend the money on the tarps.
I arrived early to help CU at Home set up.
I arrived with layers of clothes, heavy winter gear and tons of blankets. The sun was still shining and at this point because of all the movement throughout downtown I was actually sweating giving me more confidence to make it through the night without any discomfort. The first few hours were filled with a high energy, excitement, fun photo booth pics, education through presenters and documentaries, etc. We walked around the entire area enjoying the excitement of everyone volunteering and checking out all the 'homes' for the evening, some of them quite elaborate. Check out the size of the Blue Crew's cardboard box. (The Blue Crew Motorcycle Club is open to active and retired local, state and federal law enforcement, Firefighters, EMT's, Military veterans, friends and family.) Their donation efforts are as massive as their box... two boxes actually. They had another box that served as a jail as a way to help raise additional funds. As of today, the Blue Crew has raised over $5,900. Wow!!!
Many homeless men and women volunteered their time in a variety of ways. And some of the box dwellers I met had been without an address themselves. One young woman shared with me she had been homeless for 3 years and thankfully currently has a place to call her own. Another gentleman shared he has lived out of his vehicle on more than one occasion. And here they were... choosing to live in a box to help others that may find themselves in a situation they've been in before. One young adult who was a box dweller for the evening was collecting donations and in addition, had also donated $2 of his own money. The sacrifices some of the box dwellers I met were far greater than any I was making.
It reminds me of a question I was asked at church when I was 5 years old. If a rich man gave $20 and a poor man gave $1, who gave more?! I confidently and quickly raised my hand explaining the rich man gave more. $20 is greater than $1, right?! While $20 is more than $1, there is more to the question that was asked. The sacrifice of the poor man was greater. I've never forgotten that lesson. While I am not a rich woman, hearing the stories of these other box dwellers who have experienced greater challenges in life made me realize my contribution pales in comparison. Their contribution and sacrifice to help others even when they have struggled (and may still be struggling?) themselves. It reminds me you don't have to have much to make a great impact. Many small impacts will make a ripple effect creating great change. I am thankful I got to meet those box dwellers who are leading by example on how to live and love.
By 10:00 pm, the activity is slowing down, the sun had gone to bed hours earlier, the winds are picking up and the idea of spending another 8 hours on the street is sinking in. I did have a great surprise when my son joined me around 7:30 pm with a goal to stay all night as well. Warmed my heart and was excited to have a little more body heat in my box too. :-)
Jake didn't seem to have any trouble sleeping on the streets. Because of all the supplies, I brought with me (tarps, a half dozen blankets and down comforters, hand warmers, hats, gloves, winter coats, etc) he was able to sleep pretty soundly and somewhat comfortably. I couldn't stop thinking about those who live on the streets that do not have all those items. How do they do this? For a while, as I was not wanting to disturb Jake's sleep I sat at the edge of the box... still underneath the tarp but outside of the box and able to feel the cold concrete through my winter snow gear. I was getting a tiny bit closer to what the homeless experience but still doesn't compare to what they deal with on a daily basis.
As the evening got quieter in the wee hours of the morning, sleeping was difficult but not because of the cold. By this time, I crawled in the box with Jake, with hand warmers, feet warmers and under the covers I was fairly warm (my face was cold but that's it), I still had trouble sleeping. Because of the silence, every sound caused me to stir. When the wind caught our tarp, I awoke with a panic that someone might be coming in. When I'd hear voices in the distance and the voices would get louder as they neared our area, I'd wonder if they were going to mess with our box. Having Jake with me only heightened my awareness as my mama bear instincts were on high alert. How do people this night after night? How can we help them?
As I learned through presentations during the event, helping get our friends without an address off the street won't fix everything. 60% of all homeless have medical or mental conditions. I was shocked to learn that there is a large number on the streets that have needs that are even greater than getting a roof over their head.
I shared an update on social media at 3:30 am and the emotions were a bit overwhelming as the 'fun' of this event was over and the reality of what homeless men and women experience nightly. It's not fun.
If you'd like to make a donation, I'd encourage you to visit our Sweet Lemonade Photography One Winter Night Fundraising page and donate online. Online donations can continue to be submitted until February 7th, 2018. Would you like to make an impact by volunteering? Check out CU at Home's website for volunteer opportunities. Would you like to join me next year in a cardboard box? The more box dwellers the more money raised to help our neighbors. I'd love to have you join us!
We did it!
When I woke Jake up at 6:00 am to let him know we made it, his eyes still shut, he smiled and threw his arms around me and we snuggled a bit longer. That was the perfect ending to an exciting, eye-opening, emotional event to help raise money for those without an address. Mission accomplished!
Heather is the owner of Sweet Lemonade Photography and co-owner of Sweet Darling Weddings located in central Illinois (Mahomet). Life gave her a bunch of lemons (you can read a little more here on her personal blog Sweet Lemonade Life) and by keeping her focus on God, finding the positive in each day, and surrounding herself with supporting, loving and encouraging people she has turned those lemons into the sweetest lemonade. Her personal blog has been created to share her heart, her adventures and find ways to bless others. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.