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Student camp highlights homelessness

Posted: Monday, November 08, 2010

On Friday night, a group of 19 Juneau-Douglas High School students spent their evening camped out on the Riverbend Elementary School basketball court -- in self-constructed cardboard shantys -- to try to raise awareness and funds for their homeless peers.

The school's Rotary Interact Club has done this since 2004. In this past school year, 194 students in the Juneau School District were identified as homeless.

By law, a student is defined as a part of a "family in transition" when the student lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes temporarily residing with friends or relatives, staying in vehicles, trailers or a campground, hotel or motel, or staying in a place with inadequate conditions like lack of heat, electricity, water or overcrowding. Others situations include staying at a shelter or "couch surfing" by rotating between friends' houses.

Instead of spending the night out at the movies with friends and sleeping in warm beds, the students gathered at the basketball court with JDHS Spanish teacher and Juneau-Gastineau Rotary Club member Dixie Weiss and Rotarian Doug Eckland from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday. As the students arrived, almost entirely young women this year, they made signs to put up at Safeway to draw attention to their cause. Eckland brought out boxes donated by Worldwide Movers and the corners of the partially enclosed basketball court soon became cardboard fortresses. Some built mini huts, while others crafted more of a tunnel structure.

Afterward, they walked to Safeway to display the signs and hand out pamphlets in an attempt to raise additional funds. So far this year they've raised more than $1,500, not counting this weekend's activites.

Weiss said the campout began in 2004 after Interact member Alida Bus was sent to a Rotary conference in Wisconsin. A group talked about this project and Bus brought the idea back to Juneau.

Weiss said the number of homeless students has increased each year. She recalls a few years ago there were 163.

"This year there are 194 identified," she said. "That's the key. There could be a lot more at the high schools. Unless they self-identify, we don't know. We never know how many there are, sad to say."

The funds raised are split in half between the Glory Hole for family food boxes and for the district homeless fund.

Weiss said counselors or school nurses will refer a student for the fund if, for example, they are considered a student in transition and need clothing. The student will go to Fred Meyer and pick out what clothing they want, and a staff member will later go purchase the items. Weiss said when she's gone to make the purchases, she speaks with the cashier about Interact and what they do. Weiss said they've been impressed because the student selections are very modest.

Krista Thomson, Interact Club president, and Sid Browning, club vice president, both participated in the campout last year.

"It got a little cold, but it definitely raised awareness," Browning said. "This year, coming back, I tried to raise more money and more awareness."

Thomson said it changed her perspective on what it could be like and the event makes an opening for others to give.

"We're not nave," Weiss said. "We realize our homeless students don't sleep out in boxes. This is symbolic. We don't have a solution. If there were a solution we wouldn't be here."

Weiss said Juneau is taking steps for a solution with the Juneau Youth Services Transitional Living Program, but she said with the number of students needing services more needs to be done.



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