Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When the walls fall down...use duct tape

*Billings celebrated its second annual Cardboard Box City event on Saturday, October 3, 2009. For those of you who aren't familiar with Cardboard Box City, it is a homelessness awareness program particularly directed at youth. Participants are encouraged to collect monetary pledges from the community (money to go to Interfaith Hospitality Network) for sleeping on ZooMontana's lawn for one night.

Some participants were very creative with their box designs--conic and tunneled to deter wind. Others chose a more aesthetic and less practical approach to their home designs--replicates of VW vans, outer space themes, and this year's creativity winner, a farmhouse.*

(Written from the perspective of Laci St. John)
Three of Second Chance Homes' residents, Clare and I (VISTAs) took part in the event. We loaded the van at SCH's main house and headed to the zoo around 4 pm Saturday afternoon. Once we got to the zoo--which was an adventure in itself (our van crammed to the ceiling with boxes, blankets and pillows; Shiloh Road still under construction, and me maneuvering this BEASTLY vehicle?!?!)--we searched the grounds for the perfect spot to set up camp. Then, we piled all of our supplies on the grass and got to work--constructed our new homes, with cardboard and duct tape in place of penny nails and 2x4s.
Upon completion, everybody gathered under a party tent to share meal and prayer. Then, we dispersed for evening activities. Clare and I made our way to the amphitheater and listened to local performances. The wind was beginning to pick up at this point, and the sun had long-since gone down...cold was setting in.

We made our way back to our boxes and found the residents there talking and giggling. They were enjoying a much overdue vacation from their children and therapy, celebrating womanhood and friendship.

It is nine o'clock - I am frozen and ready for bed. So, I hunker into my very sorry home--years ago I came to terms with the fact that I would never be an engineer, this box further solidifies this realization--and prepare for a long, teeth-chattering night.

Crap, it is eleven o'clock and my home has collapsed. It is pitch dark--what to do?? I quickly decide to sleep on top of my box, under a mound of quilts. At this point, there is no shield from the wind. I can't feel my feet, and my nose and hands are aching. Wow! How in the world do people do this in the dead of winter? And every night?...teeth clench and clatter uncontrollably...

I am awakened by the sound of aggressive coughing and vomiting...twelve forty-seven am. One of our ladies has been struggling with the flu and below freezing temperatures aren't helping her recovery. So, we stumble through the endless box city and make our was to the van. After dropping the little lady off at her house, I hesitate before following the road back to the zoo. How easy it would have been to curl up under the covers at home!!

My alarm goes off at 6 am--finally can stop pretending to sleep. A voice over loud speaker booms across the zoo--breakfast and clean-up. I rush around trying to get warm. I am tearing apart our homes and throwing all things random and miscellaneous into the van. Thankfully, the residents stayed warm through the night. The look on Clare's face tells me she had a less-than-enjoyable experience.

We get all of the boxes broken down and the van loaded down. The ladies are so excited and refreshed from the experience. I'm starting to catch a second wind and I remember how rejuvenating the outdoors can be for body and soul (although I'm sure that wears off after a slew of winter nights). Clare and I have developed a more intimate relationship with these women. Later, we hear second-hand that the event was the most wholesome fun one of our residents has ever experienced. I'm not talking this summer, or this year...but in her lifetime! This comment really stuck with me, and after I caught up on sleep and my limbs had thawed, I was able to take time to reflect on the experience.

So, what did I learn?...
Although a seemingly small and fairly insignificant event to most, Cardboard Box City rekindled empathy, compassion, and awareness within me. I also learned that I live blindly in my comfortable life. I could hardly take one cold night in a box--with portable toilets and coffee thermoses at hand.
So, if ever again I run across the opportunity to spend one night in a box, I'll initially decline...but eventually I'll come around--and I hope to see you there, at next year's Cardboard Box City!