By Diana Bowley of the BDN Staff: DEXTER, Maine - DEXTER, Maine — Huddled around a barrel fire early Saturday night, the young men and women tried to warm their bodies against the raw wind that chilled exposed skin and snatched the colored leaves from overhead tree branches.
The fire, a cup of hot soup at midnight, cardboard boxes in varying sizes that contained either a blanket or a sleeping bag and the layered clothing they wore were all the approximately 50 young people had to survive the cold night in Wayside Park.
While the members of Dexter Regional High School's Key Club, student council, football team and Seeds of Peace could have spent a toasty night in their homes with their families, they chose instead to remain outside for a night to raise awareness and funds for the homeless. Key Club students from Penquis Valley High School in Milo and Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford joined them.
"It's going to be an eye-opener for me because I have a nice house and family to go home to. I'm sheltered," Meredith Roderka, a ninth-grade student, said Saturday. "I'm definitely going to be more compassionate to those who have to live like this."
In three previous years, the "Welcome to My Home" homeless night has raised about $12,000 for the homeless and other nonprofit organizations. The students also collect and donate blankets, food and toiletries as part of the event.
This year residents stopped by Wayside Park and again donated boxes and bags of new blankets and food as well as money to help the students' causes.
Rick Whitney, Key Club adviser, said the students hoped to raise $4,000 this year to be divided evenly between the Shaw House of Bangor, Womancare of Dover-Foxcroft, Journey House of Dexter and Friend a Gorilla, a new Key Club charity to save the habitat and mountain gorillas of Uganda.
"It's very trying times. It's hard for a lot of nonprofits right now," Whitney said Saturday. "I think by not doing it at this time, we'd really be letting them down because state funding has been cut back for social services. We have to try to reach out to help these groups to keep them going."
Fully vested in helping his community, Whitney said it "picks him up and renews his energy" when he sees the appreciation expressed by those who are helped. His work and the work of his students have brought national acclaim. For the second consecutive year, the Dexter Regional High School Key Club has been named a Diamond Distinguished Club, meaning it is one of the top 50 of the 7,000 clubs in the world.
While Whitney said he encourages students to commit to community and school service as a way to build leadership and character, they do so eagerly and willingly. They also get help from parents, teachers and coaches, he noted.
About eight parents remained at the homeless night to serve as chaperones as did Tim Wilson, football coach and Seeds of Peace adviser. "I wouldn't ask the kids to do it if I wasn't going to be here," Wilson said Saturday.
As Whitney expected, the students kept themselves entertained until 2 a.m. when they began to tire. The wind eventually died down which made the evening much nicer than previous events, but it was still cold, he said. Few complaints were heard from the students who were committed to helping others who don't have the luxury of a real home of their own.
"It really does show us to be grateful for what we have," Callie Theodore, a senior, said Sunday morning, her face reddened from windburn. Although this was her fourth year participating in the overnight, she said it doesn't get any easier. "It was pretty rough," she said.
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