Teens simulate homeless experience, raise funds to help pregnant, new mothers in need

by Kathleen Steele Gaivin

Nine teens and four adult chaperones spent a cold but dry Saturday night in April sleeping outdoors in cardboard boxes at St. Barnabas Church. The cardboard campout, organized by the Lifeteen group, gave the young people a taste of what many homeless people face every night in less-than-ideal weather. The temperature was in the low 30s the night of the campout, but the campers made do in their self-made shelters.

The campers followed up their experience by giving witness to the St. Barnabas congregation and soliciting donations for Zelie’s Home, a nonprofit community in Cleveland that helps homeless pregnant and parenting mothers. The home provides food, housing, education and job placement along with life skills training in a nurturing and non-judgmental environment. 

According to St. Barnabas Lifeteen Assistant Terri Ondracek, the teens raised $2,280 for Zelie’s Home.

Faithe Ondracek, who was a teen member of Lifeteen, now serves as an adult volunteer. She also volunteers at Zelie’s Home so she suggested the organization as the recipient of donations.

Trinity High School senior Isabella Kuches said they were surprised with the donations from the parish. “We thought we might raise less because some people have lost their jobs because of COVID,” she said. 

The cardboard campout has been an annual staple for the St. Barnabas Lifeteen program for several years; the event was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kuches participated her freshman and sophomore year and was happy to participate again this year.

“As a high school student, I’m focused on myself and my own bubble most of the time. It’s good to be immersed in the problems of the world in a way that you could never experience otherwise. It causes you to think beyond,” the Sagamore Hills teen said. 

The campers were provided with a soup-kitchen style dinner like the homeless might receive. St. Barnabas parishioner Sue Svenson provided the meal, which consisted of chicken tortilla soup, rolls, chips and a pack of cookies. Breakfast was a toasted bagel with butter or cream cheese. No snacks were provided. 

Courtney Clody, is operations manager for Zelie’s Home, assigned there through the Americorps Year of Service program. She spoke to the Lifeteen group about her experience. 

Kuches said Clody’s dedication to Zelie’s Home impressed her. “How cool is it that she graduated from Ohio State and had a great job, and then put it all away to work for AmeriCorps,” Kuches said.

According to Kuches, Clody said the women mostly get along with each other and understand the value of hard work.

“It’s remarkable how willing they are to learn. Sometimes people look down on them and assume it’s there own fault that they are where they are,” Kuches said.

In spite of cold weather and sparse meals, Kuches said the campout is still “a fun time” with her friends.

For more information on Zelie’s Home, visit zelieshome.org. ∞