By Kalyn Belsha, Aurora Beacon-News
April 21, 2015
Around 9 p.m. on Saturday, just under 80 East Aurora High School seniors tried to keep busy on their school’s football field. Some bundled up in sleeping bags, blankets or tents, while others sprinted on the grass in a game of cops and robbers.
Each senior wore an orange T-shirt designed by two students that depicted a pair of sneakers tied to a crescent moon by its laces with the words “A Night in an Outsider’s Shoes” scrawled in black.
Many students were hungry, cold and wondering whether they’d be able to sleep that night under the beaming field lights. Some thought about how the next morning they’d be able to go home to their beds, while many homeless people would continue to live on the streets.
“I’m really happy that all of us are coming together to experience this,” said 18-year-old Felicia Seawood as she sat on a bench with her friend, 18-year-old Elizabeth Rios.
As part of an independent study and service project the students decided to spend a night together outside without electronics or food after 6 p.m. to raise awareness about poverty and homelessness in the Aurora area.
More than 90 percent of East Aurora students are considered low-income and 186 students of the district’s 14,700 were homeless this year.
The project is connected to a seven-year-old course co-taught by East High teachers Shane and Sarah Gillespie that analyzes nonfiction texts about survival over trauma.
The couple teaches six sections of the course, which has completed other service projects in recent years, such as helping victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and walking to Chicago to raise awareness about the lives of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
The students chose to focus on poverty this year and as part of their project read the 1991 book “There Are No Children Here,” by Alex Kotlowitz, who came to speak to the classes last week.
Students set out to raise $15,000 to split between district families in need and Aurora’s Hesed House, which serves the city’s homeless.
By Tuesday, students raised more than $12,000 on their GoFundMe page. They hoped to hit their goal by the end of April.
Perhaps it was cheating to bring tents to sleep in, Seawood admitted, but some students, like Rios, opted to bring only a sleeping bag.
“It’s as close as I can get,” Rios said of trying to understand what it feels like to be homeless.
But students were lucky, she added, that they could choose what items to put in the single bag they carried onto the field. Students brought hygiene items like toothbrushes and dry shampoo, as well as books, homework and card games to pass the time.
Earlier that night, students lined up to make a peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese sandwich and grabbed a banana and bottle of water. It was the only food they could eat until 8 a.m. Sunday.
Some students spent much of the day before the sleep out gathering last-minute donations from friends and family.
Ariel Del Villar and Henry Olivas, both 18, traveled the neighborhood earlier in the week asking businesses to donate to their project. They wanted to see if they could take in more than they were able to get from sharing their project on social media and asking people they already knew.
Their work paid off. The pair took in the single largest donation during the project — and among the largest in the course’s history — when a manager at El Paso Grande, a grocery story at East New York and North Union streets, agreed to contribute.
When the teens went to pick up the envelope with the money, they had no idea how much would be inside. They waited until they got to their car to open it.
Inside was a check for $2,000.
“We were just standing there for five minutes looking at the check,” Olivas said.
“We were literally speechless,” Del Villar agreed. “We didn’t know what to say.”
The teens said they were grateful to see that businesses in the community cared about supporting their cause.
On Saturday afternoon, a former resident at Hesed House came to the high school football field to share her story with the students and thank them for their work.
“I just thought that was the most beautiful thing that young people are making a difference and trying to help all of us and I said I have to be there,” said Janet Ramos, of Aurora, who stayed at Hesed House for almost a year after she had medical and financial issues that led her to lose her rented apartment.
She was able to leave Hesed House in November and now serves as an advocate with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. She’s lobbied state legislators and attended marches and rallies to support programs for the homeless, she said.
Her message to students was that homelessness can happen to anyone — not just those with substance abuse issues — and that it can be overcome.
“I think more people need to know what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes,” she said, “and they’re getting to the crux of it all.”
Many students said hearing from Ramos was among the most impactful parts of the project.
Seventeen-year-old Guadalupe Avila, who helped design the project T-shirt, said Ramos’ story brought her to tears.
“I think we do take life too much for granted,” she said, “and I think I would look at life very different now.”
Photos by Jon Cunningham, The Beacon-News (left to right): Fransciso Solis and Ariel Torres play chess under a soccer goal on the East Aurora football field on Saturday; students line up for a dinner similar to what the homeless might be served in a shelter as part of a service project to raise awareness about homelessness and poverty in Aurora; some of the 80 seniors on the football field; sleeping bags await their owners.