Mar. 12—Little "stars" dotted the ceiling inside the gymnasium at Redeemer Lutheran School on Friday morning, as a makeshift bonfire pieced together with a fan and some streamers illuminated the ground below.
Gathered around the "fire," the students read books, snuggled with blankets, ate s'mores and giggled as they waved their flashlights in the air.
And though school officials were happy that students were enjoying the moment, they also wanted Friday's event to highlight a more serious topic.
What if you didn't have a home? What if the sky was your bedroom ceiling? What if your only warmth against a cold winter night was just a blanket or a tent?
That's a reality for many individuals throughout Howard County, and it's the reason behind The Sleepout Experience, organized by Coordinated Assistance Ministries (CAM).
According to Dennine Smith, CAM's executive director, The Sleepout Experience was designed to help families and small groups show their solidarity with individuals who are experiencing homelessness by sleeping outside themselves.
Along with the act of sleeping outside, participants also donate money to CAM to help fund some of the organization's programs, such as transportation, furniture donation delivery and pickup, case management, hygiene kits and other supportive services.
"It's an exercise in empathy," Smith said, when asked to explain The Sleepout Experience. "It makes people kind of think about what it would be like if they were in that type of situation. It gives them a better understanding."
So while every student at Redeemer Lutheran School gathered in the gymnasium Friday morning to participate in the school's version of The Sleepout Experience, over a dozen students and their families took it one step farther Friday night by choosing to sleep outside.
"I am just elated," Smith said, when asked about the students' enthusiasm. "That's really what this event's about. You really want to capture the interest of the youngest that we possibly can because these are issues that we hope to one day alleviate. We know the issue might always be with us, but because of that, we know that it's going to take those that have compassion and have concern for the welfare of others in order to find solutions to these issues. It definitely opens up the opportunity for discussion. So I love to see kids and their families involved."
Families such as the Komars, who said participating in The Sleepout Experience was a no-brainer.
"It's just great being able to take all of those opportunities that are presented from the school and that my children hear about and then being able to enthusiastically get on board with them," Brooke Komar acknowledged, noting how her daughters, Coralee, 8, and Madelyn, 6, were really excited to put up their tent.
"I want to be able to help my kids to develop a heart for social justice and a heart for people who live in their community, even if their situations are different," she added. "I guess I just want my kids to see that it can happen to anybody, and it's really important not to have a stereotypical prejudice about a person because we don't know that person's story."
And that's the real crux of The Sleepout Experience, Smith pointed out.
"We're all kind of in fragile places," she said. "A lot of us might be living in that type of situation where if a financial crisis comes up, we're just right on the edge. ... Homelessness really is one of those things that can happen to anyone, and I wish that people would just take a minute to understand that. Just having a little empathy for people will go a long way.
"If you don't see someone as a person of value, it's very easy to be condescending," Smith added. "It's very easy to be unfriendly. ... But we're all human. And we need to learn how to walk in someone else's shoes and have just a little more compassion. That's really the key to making this a brighter world."
But while Smith said she hopes everyone heeds her advice, perhaps that advice sounds even more convincing coming from the mouth of a child, especially as it relates to the public stigma of homelessness.
"It's not nice to bully homeless people or walk past them without giving them something," Redeemer Lutheran School sixth grader Mari Common noted. "Every time I walk by a homeless person, I always ask my mom if I can hand them out money. It's just not right how some of them are treated."
Fourth grader Nileighana Cloe agreed.
"Imagine or put yourself in their shoes," she said. "How would you feel if somebody was making fun of you for not having a home? You probably wouldn't like it either."