Some of you may know that i spent several years being homeless. So did Little Bear's dad. In fact, thats how we all became a family... Anthony and I were both eighteen years old when we met, as two homeless teenagers staying in an adult shelter. We were the youngest people in the shelter by a decade, and we stuck together like glue. We called each other brother and sister. Later that year, Anthony went to jail for supposedly helping to steal a car. (I don't really think he did it, since he never even learned how to drive well enough to get down the driveway until many years later!) While Anthony was in jail, I became friends with Diana. Anthony got out of jail, and Diana often drove me to visit him where he was staying in the city. Eventually, the two of them fell in love, got married, Anthony adopted Monkeyboy, and Little Bear was born!
Anyway, every year on the first Saturday in November, the county where I live has this event called Sleep Out Saturday, where a lot of people agree to sleep outside for one night and experience a little bit of what homeless people experience. Monkeyboy, Marcus, Sarah and I did it last year. This year Monkeyboy and Sarah didn't want to do it, and Marcus lives in the city now... but Little Bear really wanted to try it! So I brought her with me.
We do Sleep Out Saturday through a church near our house, where Little Bear and I also sometmes attend services. (I actually discovered this church through last year's Sleep Out Saturday, and once we moved to this town, we were only a few blocks from it, so I decided to start attending.) At this church, the high school youth group does Sleep Out Saturday, but they invite the entire church community to participate too. Except usually nobody ever does. So it was just the youth group, plus me and Little Bear! It was very cool though. The youth group leaders and kids made Little Bear feel very special, and it really was a great experience.
When we first got there, we had to set up our spot to sleep, out in the front yard of the church, using cardboard boxes. Here are some pictures of the dwelling we pulled together. I used three boxes to make a sort of two-room box, where Little Bear and I could lay next to each other, and see each other through a window, but have our own space. Little Bear also had a "living room", the big blue box that the high school kids had decorated.
Next we watched a movie called My Own Four Walls, which is a documentary where kids who are or have been homeless talk about their experiences. Did you know that the average age of a homeless person is nine? And in the county where I live, its eight? Most people think of homeless people as being adults, especially with addictions and mental illnesses and what-not. There are many homeless adults, including people with mental illness or addiction, but the number of homeless children greatly outweigh them.
After that, we did a project where each person got two dollars, and we had to go to the grocery store and try to buy enough food for a meal. Little Bear and I teamed up with some others in the group, pooled our money, and had a feast of PBJ sandwiches, chips, carrots, and chocolate milk. The object of that project was for the kids to realize that healthy food actually costs more than junk food. A lot of the kids wanted to get something from the dollar menu at McDonalds, but they had to realize that a person can't live for very long on the Dollar Menu alone! They also had to realize that, for a homeless person, actually having two dollars to spend on a meal might be a rare luxury!
We went to a rally where Sleep Out Saturday participants from all over the county gathered. It was pretty boring for Little Bear... a lot of listening to speakers and just walking around... but one cool thing was, they taught us how to do the dance to that Black Eyed Peas song, "I Got A Feeling." Remember how on Oprah the Black Eyed Peas played that song and everyone started dancing? That was the dance we learned! Little Bear loved that. Plus. at least she got a free T-Shirt!
Little Bear adored this one group leader, "Z" (thats her actual nickname) who spent a ton of time with us.
Little Bear stayed up pretty late!
Here she is in front of the Sleep Out Saturday sign...
--- running around the tents trying to hide from me...
---and just sitting around.
Eventually she got tired and wanted to crawl into her cardboard box. I gave her about four hundred blankets and tried to make her as snuggly as possible, and she fell asleep quickly. Here's Little Bear tucked into her box!
In the middle of the night, though, Little Bear got cold, so we went inside and slept in the sanctuary with a few other people. We slept well for the rest of the night. Here is Little Bear when we first woke up in the sanctuary! It was cool because we woke up to the sunlight streaming through the colorful stained glass windows. Little Bear said she wished there were stickers that you could put on regular windows to make them look like stained glass. Do you think that kind of thing exists?
We went downstairs and ate breakfast with everyone...
Then we did one more group activity.
The minister was there to talk to the kids, and he talked about how all of the kids in the group had a built-in safety net. He said that no matter what happened to them, they would always have an entire crew of adults they could call to ask for help... the youth group leaders, and others around the church. He promised them that, no matter what sort of dark, terrible, sludgy, gross, icky experience they were going through, there was nothing that could happen to them, or nothing they could do, that would be so terrible that the adults around the church would turn their backs on them. He gave all of the kids his personal cell phone number, and encouraged them to program his number and other adults' numbers into their own cell phones or write them down on cards to put in their backpacks, so they would always be able to call someone for help if they needed it.
Then he explained that a lot of times homelessness occurs when people do not have a safety net.
The kids got rolls of toilet paper, and on each ply they had to write the name of someone they could go to for help if they needed it. They had to try to think of lots of different people, so they would realize that if one person couldn't help, the next person on the list would, and so on.
Earlier in the week, when we were first talking about Sleep Out Saturday, Little Bear had asked lots of questions about how I had become homeless and about what happened to children if their parents couldn't take care of them. I told her that some kids went to foster homes if their parents couldn't keep them safe at home. But I told Little Bear that that would not happen to her, because she has many, many people who would quickly step up if something were to happen to Diana. I reminded her of her three grandmas and two grandpas, her multiple aunts and uncles, and family friends. I assured her that someone would always be there to care for her.
This must have sunk in for Little Bear. Because at Sleep Out Saturday, she suddenly put her arms around me and said, "You'll never be alone again, Nicki! You have so many people who love you, including me!"
Does that not make you want to cry???
Anyway. Sleep Out Saturday ended when church began. At our church the little kids go into the service with the adults for the first fifteen minutes, and then get released to their Sunday School classes. In church we sat with Z, who is now Little Bear's bestest friend on Earth. After Little Bear went off to Sunday School, I started thinking about the idea of home, and the idea of church. In the video we had watched about kids who were homeless, a lot of the kids had talked about how they loved school because it was the most secure place in their lives. And I started thinking how church could be like that too. I was so happy that we did Sleep Out Saturday because I thought it was good for Little Bear to learn about homelessness and to just have the experience. But I was also happy because, even though Little Bear and I have been attending that church on and off for a few months, actually spending nearly twenty-four hours at the church and sleeping and eating there and everything seemed to introduce Little Bear to the church itself. I feel like now there are a lot of people there who know us, and who already adore Little Bear. When Little Bear ran off to class, I was thinking how now she could walk around the church on her own with the other kids, and I could ask people, "Have you seen Little Bear?" and they would know who I was talking about and they would have seen her.
I kept remembering how the minister had promised the youth group kids that they had that built in safety net of people they could trust. And I want that, I want that for Little Bear and Pufferfish. And myself, too, you know?
So this is sort of a rambling post. And I don't exactly know how to end it. So I'll just end it like this... THE END!