Although many Centre College students have slept under the stars during camping trips or hiking activities, not many do so to raise awareness about poverty and homelessness. On Nov. 13, however, 35 students did just this, camping out in front of Old Centre for a night of discussions, vigils, reflection and service.
Part of Centre’s annual Poverty and Homelessness Week, the eighth annual “Box Sleep-Out” event was hosted by Alpha Phi Omega. And although not every student who participated spent the night sleeping in a box, all were touched by the presentations and discussions that took place throughout the event.
In past years, members of Alpha Phi Omega kicked off the night with a movie or presentation that focused on issues that affect people living in poverty. This year, the group was able to hear the personal experiences of someone who works directly with the homeless.
“Paul Whiteley, the uncle of Centre student Sara Sanders and a current resident of Louisville, has worked much of his life in case management and advocacy for indigent and homeless populations in Louisville and Atlanta,” says Heather Walls ’11, one of the students organizing this year’s sleep-out. “Nineteen years ago, he was one of the founders—along with Centre religion professor Dr. Rick Axtell—of the Urban Goatwalker Coffeehouse in Louisville.”
Although Whiteley was originally planning to speak for only 45 minutes, the conversation lasted two and a half hours.
“People were generally interested in discussing the issues,” Walls says, “and Mr. Whiteley did an incredible job of incorporating facts with personal stories. Homelessness, as he explained, is not about facts and figures, and this really came to life in the stories he told during the conversation. I think that it was a very meaningful conversation for those who were there.”
“I found it extremely rewarding and helpful to not only have a guiding speaker who has worked with the homeless in Louisville for more than 20 years but also to have an electic mix of students present: those who had taken the Poverty and Homelessness class at Centre to those who had never seen hunger first-hand to those who lived on food stamps,” says Emily Niehaus ’12, who along with Walls is co-vice president of service for Alpha Phi Omega. “It was an amazing experience to see all these different backgrounds and different experiences with hunger and homelessness, or lack there of, come together for a few hours and have an honest discussion.”
After listening to Whiteley’s stories about his work, the students held a candlelight vigil for those affected by poverty and homelessness. The group also completed a service project that involved making “yarn” from plastic shopping bags, which will be used to make sleeping mats.
Walls says that after participating in the sleep-out event for two years, she was excited to take on the responsibilities of organizing the event this year.
“After taking Dr. Axtell’s Poverty and Homelessness course last semester,” she says, “I had a deeper appreciation for some of the issues and difficulties faced by those in poverty. I also have past experience working with those who live in poverty, through a volunteer program in rural Malawi, work that I did in an HIV clinic in Toledo this past summer, and a few other travel and mission work experiences. Box Sleep-Out became an important way for me to share the important lessons I’ve learned with others on Centre’s campus.”