VICTOR — Thirty-five Victor teens recently learned what it’s like to live out of a cardboard box on a street corner, at least temporarily.
The teens set up their boxes outside of the First United Methodist Church on Oct. 10, just as CNN was reporting that the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled more than 1,800 points during the week ending that day. These teens were not young victims of the volatile stock market, however. Rather, they voluntarily took to the streets to draw attention to the plight of the homeless.
“Homeless For a Night” was sponsored by LINC, a relatively new group of youth ministers from seven churches in Victor and Farmington. The temporarily box-dwelling teens hailed from four local congregations, including St. Patrick Parish. Each teen came to the event armed not only with blankets and extra layers of clothing, but also with pledge donations they’d gathered from friends, relatives and neighbors in the weeks before the event, said Lori Cunliffe, youth and parish-life coordinator at St. Patrick.
That evening, the teens also stood on the street corners in front of their boxes and collected donations from passersby. Some tossed spare change from their car windows, while others pulled over, talked to the teens and donated $10 or $20 to the cause. All of the money collected was to be split between Habitat for Humanity of Ontario County and the Victor-Farmington Food Cupboard. Representatives from both organizations spoke to the teens after they’d finished their supper of soup and bread and put the finishing touches on their new box homes.
Ken Allen, chairman of church relations for Habitat for Humanity of Ontario County, thanked the teens for recognizing there are people in need in the area.
“It’s one thing to recognize that there are those people in our society, but it’s another thing to take action like you’re doing. Habitat for Humanity does appreciate what you are doing here. The money that you give helps us buy the materials to build the houses,” Allen said.
Bill Rockefeller, who is in charge of inventory at the Victor-Farmington Food Cupboard, also thanked the teens for their presence and sacrifice. Such efforts are especially welcome in tough economic times, he said, noting the Victor-Farmington Food Cupboard fed more than 800 people in 266 families during the month of September alone.
“Everyone knows what’s happening with the economy. You’d have to be living in a box permanently to not know what’s going on,” Rockefeller said. “Life can turn on a dime sometimes. The food cupboard is there to help those who are down on their luck.”
Spending the night outside in boxes would allow the teens to empathize with the homeless, rather than simply sympathize with them, he added.
“The difference is feeling sorry for someone vs. really truly having been in their shoes and experienced it,” he said.
That is precisely why coleaders Lisa Brotsch and Jim Exton planned a “Homeless For a Night” event last year for the teens in their youth group at First United Methodist Church. The teens had seen homeless people on a youth-group trip to New York City but didn’t really understand there were homeless people locally, said Brotsch, who researched the issue by speaking with police and municipal officials in Victor and Canandaigua.
“There’s quite a few in Canandaigua living out in the woods. It’s all over and yet people don’t imagine that it’s here or someone they know could have been homeless,” she said.
She and Exton held last year’s event on a 22-degree November night that turned out to be the coldest night of the season, Brotsch said. Nonetheless, the 13 participating teens enjoyed it, and this year Brotsch and Exton extended the invitation to the other youth ministers in LINC.
The temperature only dipped into the 40s during this year’s event, but St. Patrick’s youth-group members said they wouldn’t have let colder temperatures deter them from raising awareness of the issue of homelessness.
“If (homeless people) can do it, we can do it,” said Erica Randall. The 15-year-old St. Patrick parishioner said she was surprised to learn homelessness is an issue in Victor.
“Even here in little Victor we have homeless people,” she said.
“I thought it was more in big cities, like New York City,” 15-year-old Emma Bocchino added.
Bocchino and her friends were eager to raise awareness and money, and equally excited about their box homes. Tori Lanzillo, 15, said she and her friend had managed to score a “really stable” box large enough for two people. Most boxes weren’t that big, said Alexa McGuckin, 14.
“They fit you and that’s it,” she said.
Courtney Gallagher, 15, said she and her friend had a large box that they’d turned into a castle of sorts, complete with a drawbridge. Fellow 15-year-olds Sarah Oliphant, Jack Napolitano and Erin Hart, meanwhile, said they planned to beat the cold in their boxes by wearing lots and lots of layers, “basically to the point where you can’t move,” Erin said.