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Teens get lesson in homelessness
Flowery Branch students sleep on cardboard outside
Flowery Branch High seniors Chelsea Freihaut, left, and Kerri Leonard prepare the boxes they later slept in Thursday evening.

Even with a few creature comforts from home, life in a cardboard box is no fun.

More than 30 Flowery Branch High School students got a small taste of homelessness when they spent the night sleeping outdoors on cardboard with shower curtains or garbage bags serving as the roofs above their heads.

Teen prayers were answered when it didn’t rain, but out on the high school’s practice football field the wind and cold that cut to the bone made it a sleep-deprived night for many.

"We just got the biggest reality check of our lives," said 18-year-old Cydney Stephens as she walked into her first-period class tired, unwashed and frazzled — but with a sharp new perspective.

The "box-out," as it is called, is an exercise intended to give young people a chance to walk in the worn-out shoes of street people. Flowery Branch teacher Jennifer Smyth organized this year’s volunteer event for optional credit in her environmental science class, where students have discussed overpopulation and the poverty and homelessness that can result.

"I hope it gives them a new awareness," Smyth said prior to the box-out. "It takes just being a little uncomfortable to be aware of how other people live in this world."

The box-out participants arrived for the night Thursday around 7 and left the field roughly 13 hours later. They didn’t go hungry — hot dogs, chicken fingers, wings and s’mores were furnished by area stores and restaurants for dinner and they got juice and doughnuts for breakfast. There were portable toilets on site, and students were allowed to bring sleeping bags, pillows and blankets.

"We were pampered homeless," Stephens joked.

Still, the experience, especially after a former homeless woman gave a speech to the students, was "an eye opener," said 17-year-old James Gilliam.

"It’s a small example of what it’s actually like," Gilliam said. "It made me feel bad for the people who have to be out there all the time."

Said Kerri Leonard, 17, "this showed us what overpopulation can do."

John Paul Ahumada, 16, said his legs ached after spending the night crammed into a 4-foot box with his knees bent to fit. He slept fitfully, with each gust of wind that rattled the garbage bags above him sounding ominously like rain.

At 8:30 a.m., having come straight from the field to class, Ahumada was dead tired.

"I could just drop," he said.

But no one could, until they finished the school day. In order to receive credit, students had to have each teacher certify they had not slept in class or complained.

Stephens said the time spent hanging out with friends was fun, but overall, "I definitely wouldn’t want to do that as a lifestyle."

When they returned to the classroom Friday morning, Tracy Whitmire, United Way of Hall County vice president of Resource Development, dropped in to talk to the class about poverty.

Whitmire hoped the students learned empathy for the less fortunate.

"Arguably, it’s something they’ll never forget," Whitmire said. "It will definitely be something they’ll talk about."

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