Pictured below: Paul Booker, 17, Victoria Gnade, 15, and Gabbie Bilodeau, 14, all first-timers at Dexter Regional High School Key Club's homeless night fundraiser, thought it would be fun – something veterans of the event say wears off as the cold, uncomfortable night goes on. (Grant photo)
Written by Sheila Grant: DEXTER – It's getting colder, dark is settling in, and it's starting to rain lightly. Inhabitants of the impromptu homeless camp scurry to pull tarps, cardboard boxes and sleeping bags into something safe and warm for the night. As the rain grows heavier, a few take shelter under the ramp to a nearby building.
But when lightning and heavy rain sweep over the area, the Key Club students from Dexter Regional High School participating in this fundraiser for the homeless are quickly ushered to safety inside the American Legion Hall. Real homeless people don't have that option.
The annual Point in Time Survey on Jan. 26 revealed that more than 950 people were homeless on that particular day in Maine. An accurate picture of the homeless situation is difficult, because the population is mobile and because those suffering rural homelessness or an existence of "couch surfing" aren't found and counted. And according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, over the next three years, the number of homeless in the United States could increase by another five percent, or 74,000 people.
This is the fifth year of the Welcome to my Home event, which was the brainchild of Rebecca Hubbell, 21, when she was a senior at DRHS in 2007. Hubbell hasn't made it to the event every year due to college and work, but has come each year that she's able, and was there Saturday night.
"I think there's a great need for awareness in the state of Maine," said Hubbell. "Homelessness is not recognized as a rural issue. I think it's recognized as an urban issue that happens in cities, not in our hometowns."
Spending a night in the elements is fun until about 10 p.m., she said.
"By morning, everyone recognizes and is enlightened by what life on the streets could be like," she said. "I think it opens their eyes."
Students are required to raise a minimum of $25 in sponsorships, and many raise more. Each year, Key Club chooses organizations to benefit from the event. Womancare in Dover-Foxcroft, which provides services to victims of domestic abuse, has been involved in the event and has been a recipient of funds since the beginning. According to Art Jette, community relations coordinator at Womancare, 25 percent of the homeless have been displaced by domestic violence.
Shaw House, a teen homeless shelter in Bangor, has also been an annual recipient/participant in the event. Penquis Journey House of Dexter has been part of the event, and a fund recipient, for three years. The funding is extremely helpful, according to Denise Trafton, residential director of the home for pregnant and parenting teenage girls who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
"Key Club is very supportive to our program, and the girls," she said. Having other teens show this kind of support makes the young women "feel part of a greater community where people will help you even if they nay not know you."
"It means a lot," adds Tonisha Bassett, 19, a Journey House resident standing nearby with daughter Carson Jean, almost one year old, in her arms. "I think it's pretty cool. I've never seen a community do something like this before."
Rebecca Mason, 17, is a senior at DRHS and president of the Key Club. She said it's very easy to get students involved because it's a fun event that many teens view as a challenge, making this one of the organization's biggest fundraisers.
"I think it raises a lot of awareness for domestic violence and homelessness," she said. "A lot of people overlook it, but we get out here and kind of make a scene, and people stop to see what's going on, and maybe take a second to think about it throughout their day."
The event has never been cancelled due to weather, according to Rick Whitney, Key Club advisor.
"It's rained on us at 2 a.m. before," he said. "It's been 20 or 25 degrees with heavy frost during a couple of the events, and we had light, very cold rain one year."
On Saturday night, rain pushed the registration/collection table indoors shortly after the event started, and the participants indoors when lightning moved over the area at 6:40 p.m. Guest speakers from Womancare held a candlelight vigil with the students inside the American Legion Hall, paying tribute to nine people who lost their lives in domestic-violence incidents in Maine over the past 12 months.
"It was a pretty moving presentation," Whitney said. Music was provided by Craig Stutzman. Trafton spoke about Penquis Journey House, and DRHS Coach Tim Wilson spoke about the importance of leaving behind a legacy. Staff from Shaw House brought hot cider and donuts for the kids, just as they do during outreach to homeless teens in the Bangor area.
While the students were safe and dry inside until the storm passed, their bedding and shelters were not, making for a long night.
"We didn't get any more rain, but a lot of the kids' stuff got wet, so it was pretty miserable," said Whitney. "There were about 60 kids involved. Some of them had to leave early but a good number stayed. Some of them just curled up on a tarp with a blanket and slept. From about 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. it got really quiet. At around 6:30 a.m. we started picking up. It takes about 45 minutes to pick up and get the area looking normal again. They didn't get a lot of sleep, but nature throws a curveball sometimes, and homeless people can't pick their weather, so we have to take the good with the bad."
Whitney estimated that when all the pledges come in the event will have raised about $3,000. Donations of 60 blankets came in and were divided between the three non-profits, and each reached two boxes of canned food and toiletries that were also donated to the Key Club.
"I really commend the students for what they do," said Whitney. "I think it went pretty well last night. If it hadn't been for the rain, it would have been perfect.""This content originally appeared as a copyrighted article in the SVWeekly.com and is used here with permission."
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