The holiday season is all about being at home with friends and family. But what if your version of “home” was a cardboard box, or an underpass, or a neighborhood park?
The Hinsdale area and the Western Suburbs are no longer immune to the homeless epidemic. In fact, nearly 10 percent of children in DuPage County alone are living in poverty. And, more than 1,000 of these students are homeless.
With the youth group from their church in tow, Hinsdale Middle School eighth graders Sydney and Hannah Pjesky took to sleeping in a local parking lot as part of Sleep Out Saturday, a movement where volunteers could donate, fundraise, and sleep outdoors to help homeless families in the Bridge Communities transitional housing program based in Glen Ellyn.
Bridge Communities has a mission to provide housing, mentoring, and supportive services to homeless families in DuPage County and aims to create a place where all families have safe, sustainable, and affordable housing and life-long self-sufficiency. Over the last three decades, the nonprofit organization has helped nearly 800 families “cross the bridge” from homelessness to hope.
“When I first heard about Sleep Out Saturday a few years ago, I wondered how this would help people who really are homeless,” explains Sydney passionately. “This year, I slept in an old refrigerator box and it was cold and the pavement was hard. I was prepared with lots of layers to keep me warm—most homeless maybe have only one or two. In a small way, it helped put being homeless into perspective for me, and it made me want to figure out how we can make things better. I know that people passing by took note of what we were doing. We had a huge spike in donations [to Bridge Communities] after the Sleep Out.”
Bridge Communities provides free transitional housing to 131 homeless DuPage County families each year. During the two years that each family spends in its program, they have the opportunity to save money, learn budgeting skills, and obtain better employment so they can live self-sufficiently once they graduate.
“Sleep Out Saturday opened my eyes to the fact that there are kids at my school who are homeless,” says Hannah with conviction. “People don’t really talk about it, but that’s life for some people my age. I don’t think I really understood what it’s like to be homeless until I was sleeping outside—and even then I know there is no way I can really understand because when it was tough for me, I knew that tomorrow night I’d be back in my own bed. When you’re homeless, you don’t know where you’ll be sleeping or where your next meal will come from. Sleeping outside helped me realize how fortunate I am for everything I have.”
Eighth grade is the last year students can participate in Sleep Out Saturday, but this won’t stop the socially conscious Pjesky sisters from advancing the cause to help the homeless when they get to Hinsdale Central next year.
“Helping our neighbors is the right thing to do,” says Sydney. “If we each acknowledge that something needs to be done, change will be happen. I always tell people that they can start small. Help at a food pantry. Donate money to Bridge Communities. Just do something. You will make a difference.”