The temperature dipped into the 30s Saturday night in Elmhurst, Ill., but eight members of the St. Peter's United Church of Christ youth group braved the cold and slept outside in tents, boxes and vehicles to support the area's homeless people. The group was joined by about 2,000 others in yards, fields and parking lots all across DuPage County for Sleep Out Saturday, an annual fundraiser for Bridge Communities, a transitional housing organization that strives to empower families to self-sufficiency.
"The goals of Sleep Out [Saturday] are three-fold: to raise awareness of homelessness in DuPage County, to experience solidarity with our homeless brothers and sisters by spending a night in the cold, and to raise funds for Bridge," said St. Peter's UCC associate pastor, the Rev. Jeanne Murawski. "We have been participating for maybe four years now, and the youth always get a lot from it."
The Nov. 3 event marked the ninth annual Sleep Out Saturday. This year's theme was "Imagine," which challenged each participant to imagine changing the life of a local homeless family and then turning that thought into a reality. The event included activities that put the youth into the shoes of those less fortunate – like trying to buy a healthy meal with minimal funds from the local grocery store, and playing games and watching movies that involved homelessness. Sleep Out Saturday was kicked off by a free outdoor rally that featured live music, videos, and testimonials from Bridge Community tenants. Each participant from St. Peter's UCC youth group was challenged to raise at least $50 for the organization – enough to cover the $30 cost of staying at Bridge Communities for one night with some left over.
"They were effectively trading one night in the cold so that a family could have a warm bed to sleep in," Murawski said.
Homelessness is an issue that St. Peter's UCC has been actively fighting for the past few years. In addition to Sleep Out Saturday, the congregation also volunteers once a month with another emergency shelter program in the area. Through these experiences, Murawski said members of the youth group have developed more awareness of the hardships that some of their neighbors face, and a greater desire to get involved and help.
"Our monthly volunteer night has become something that has helped define us as a mission church," Murawski said. "Sleep Out Saturday is a natural progression of that as something we do as a congregation."