By Bill Pearson, Piscataquis Observer: DEXTER, Maine — Dexter Key Club member Victoria Gnade cuts off a long piece of duct tape and then carefully applies the piece along her oversized cardboard box. Gnade knows the tape needs to reinforce the sides and remain sturdy for an important reason.
The box was her home for the night of Oct. 12 when she and her classmates participated in the sixth annual "Welcome to My Home" event sponsored by the Dexter Key Club. The event is held yearly to promote awareness of the struggle that an estimated 1 million homeless people face on a nightly basis.
Gnade and her fellow members invited other area Key Clubs from Foxcroft Academy, Penquis Valley, Piscataquis Community, Nokomis Regional, Greenville and Hermon high schools to sleep outside to experience the temperature dropping on an hourly basis and see the frost forming on the grass during the early morning hours.
Gnade participated in last year's event, so she was well-prepared for what the students would experience.
She dressed in layers, wore gloves, a wool hat, long underwear. All to combat the cold, the wind, the rain and what other elements Mother Nature throws at the students during their one night of experience living on the streets.
The event, Gnade said, is a way to give back to the community while at the same time realizing how fortunate the students are to have a place to live every day.
"I did it last year so I know what to expect. The weather can be difficult and it rained last year, which made it even more challenging," Gnade said. "My box needs to last the whole night to keep the wind from blowing it away and to keep the rain out. I also realized it was important not to take for granted that I have a home and understand that other people aren't as fortunate."
The students are required to donate a blanket, nonperishable food item, toiletries and $25. The proceeds are divided among three local organizations that assist those in search of a place to stay.
The proceeds are donated to Womancare in Dover-Foxcroft, which provides resources for domestic abuse victims; Penquis Journey House in Dexter, which provides support to young mothers and their children; and the Shaw House in Bangor, which is a homeless shelter for teenagers who are no longer living at home.
The only creature comforts provided the students during the night are hot beverages, doughnuts and one cup of soup. A Shaw House representative provides the treats to the students in the same manner the organization provides them to homeless people living on the streets of Bangor.
Before the students went to sleep, representatives from Womancare, Penquis Journey House and the Shaw House explained how they assist homeless people and how the students' participation help them do that.
"Some sort of domestic violence issue is the cause for about 28 percent of the homeless," said Art Jette, Womancare's community relations coordinator. "We assist people in this difficult situation. The kids do all the work in organizing this event, which results with us receiving some of the proceeds. We are very grateful for what they do for us."
This was the third time Dexter Key Club President Meredith Roderka participated in the event. As somebody who has twice experienced living outside on a cold October Maine night, she understands the challenges that homeless families face on a daily basis.
She wore two long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt and pants in order to stay warm during the night.
Roderka believes the event begins as a fun night spent with her friends, but as the evening progresses the stark reality of living on the streets sets in.
"When it's over and you go home, there definitely is the realization of how lucky you are," Roderka said. "It's a lot of fun from 6 p.m. to midnight, but around 2 a.m. it really starts to get cold and you are so cold you feel miserable."
Dexter Key Club adviser Rick Whitney summed up the experience by stating the kids wake up around 6 a.m. and pick up the yard outside the Abbot Mill museum where they spent the night. The students proceed home to take a hot shower and have a hot meal before going to bed.
After the tasks were completed, the students were able to get some actual sleep, which is something very few of them experienced during the overnight adventure.
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