Cold night for a good cause

Here’s a link to video of the Sleep Out: http://on-myajc.com/SleepOut

Imagine living in a world in which the odds seem stacked against you.

A world in which you flee abuse and neglect. Sleep on the streets. Do anything to survive. A world, as one young woman said, in which you feel more like a “servant than a child.”

Such are the stories of the homeless youth helped by Covenant House Georgia, which not only offers a place to sleep, but provides some hope for a better life.

On a blustery night last week, executives from 17 cities in the United States and Canada had the opportunity to learn more about the Covenant House and meet some of those who had been living on the streets. We heard their heart-breaking stories and marveled at their newfound optimism. Along the way, we experienced, for just a few hours, at least, what it’s like to sleep outside, in a world in which there is no warm bed, no comfy mattress.

It’s the third time Covenant House has held the Sleep Out, as it’s called. The goal, of course, is to raise awareness – and money – to tackle homelessness among our youth.

“These kids have been through so much,” Allison Ashe, Covenant House’s executive director, told us that night. “These are kids that people cross the other side of the street to avoid. Sure, they look so tough and so angry. But it’s amazing to see the transformation.”

Ra’Keshia Harris understands that transformation as well as anyone.

Her mother died when she was 6 years old, and Ra’Keshia, who is now 20, moved from family to family – from Alabama, to New Jersey, to New York, to Savannah, and then to Atlanta.

“I just got lost,” she told us that night. “I didn’t have a place to center myself. No one was there to support me. I was miserable.”

She moved in briefly with her sister. It was stressful, chaotic, and bound to unravel. Soon, Ra’Keshia had nowhere else to go. A local hospital recommended Covenant House. On the cab ride from the hospital to Covenant House, Ra’Keshia felt as if she were on the cusp of a life-changing experience.

“I began to create a plan for myself,” she recalled. “I felt alone, but I knew something good was going to happen on this journey.”

Indeed it did.

In spite of all that had gone so wrong, Ra’Keshia graduated high school. Today, with the help of Covenant House, she rents an apartment. She’s studying for the SAT. She hopes to major in psychology and minor in theater.

This is what happens, she told us, when you’re resilient, when someone reaches out and offers their help when you need it the most.

At the Covenant House in Atlanta, these signs of optimism are everywhere.

In the hallway, with its bright pink cinderblock walls. In the classrooms – their chalkboards filled with inspirational messages: “In this room, we are real. We make mistakes. We say I’m sorry. We give second chances. We are patient. We forgive. We do our best. We respect one another.” And, of course, on the faces of the staff.

As Ra’Keshia shared her story, Regina Jennings, Covenant House’s director of support services, beamed.

It’s Jennings’ job to fill the needs that go beyond crisis care; she helps these young men and women hone the skills they’ll need to find jobs, receive their GED, or in Ra’Keshia’s case, prepare for college.

Since joining Covenant House, Jennings’ life has changed, too. As the former associate dean of instruction at a college in California, Jennings’ duties once included hearing students’ appeals. It’s the kind of job where you view the world as a cut-and-dried, right-and-wrong kind of place, she told us.

“I had to be very rigid,” said Jennings, who moved to Atlanta to be closer to her aging mother and eventually found a job at Covenant House. “Here, there is no black and white. Here, I learned what grace is. Here, my views on homelessness completely changed.”

Over the next several hours, ours did, too.

Take Jon Waller, for instance. He’s the general counsel for Waffle House and was inspired to take part in the Sleep Out by his two sons.

“They’ve been volunteering forever,” Waller told me. “Now, I wanted to do something to make a difference.” He’s been so moved by Covenant House’s success stories that he’d like to serve on the board.

Diane Duncan and her husband made the long drive from Graham, Texas, to take part in the Sleep Out here in Atlanta. It doesn’t hurt that Diane’s brother, John Ridall, serves as the board chair for Covenant House Georgia. But for the Duncans, this was about so much more.

“It doesn’t matter where you live,” Diane Duncan told me, “these kids need help. It’s the easiest thing in the world, to give to someone else.”

With that, it was time to head outside.

As midnight neared, we placed our flattened cardboard box on the ground outside Covenant House and bundled up inside our sleeping bags. The temperatures hovered just above freezing, but no one here dared complain.

“Yes, it’s going to be cold,” Diane Duncan said, “but it’s only for one night.”

Before we settled in, someone sang “Amazing Grace” by the campfire. The words never sounded sweeter.

For the next few hours, we tossed and turned. Train whistles blew in the distance. I dozed off for a bit before waking up and checking the time. It was 1:12 in the morning. Then 2:46. 4:11. 5:19.

At 6:12 a.m., the rustling began. I’ve been around enough “camp sites” to know that when one person wakes up, we all wake up. Soon, we were slipping back into our shoes, rolling up our sleeping bags and sipping hot coffee.

As we left that morning, each of us agreed it could have been much, much worse. The experience opened our eyes to just how lucky many of us are – and how hard life can be for some. We were also reminded, yet again, of how one small offer of help can make such a big difference.