Students experience homelessness for a night

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WARREN — In past years, students at Our Lady of Fatima High School have held food drives, gone on field trips to homeless shelters and heard talks by representatives from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

But this year, ten students from the school, all members of the Feinstein Hunger Brigade, experienced homelessness first hand. A “camp out” was held this past weekend on the school grounds.

The campers, chaperoned by St. Dorothy Sister Lisa Palazio, the school’s Guidance Counselor, spent 24 hours outdoors and slept in below freezing temperatures with nothing more than coats and a few blankets for warmth, a small fire made from wood collected around the school and cardboard boxes that served as protection from the elements.

Sister Palazio has been involved with the Hunger Brigade for 12 years. “The idea of having a camp out was brought to the students and the group jumped at it,” she said.

The Feinstein Hunger Brigade is an educational program sponsored by the Cranston-based Feinstein Foundation. The program teaches middle and high school students about ways to alleviate hunger and homelessness in their communities.

“We wanted the kids to feel what it is like to not have anything,” Sister Palazio emphasized. “No home, just the clothes you have on and a few blankets.”

The students were divided into two teams and began the learning project on Saturday at noon with prayer and concluded with a Mass on Sunday at 10:30 a.m, celebrated at St. Mary of the Bay Church.

With excitement and camaraderie, the students built temporary shelters out of large cardboard boxes forged together with duct tape. They collected firewood as the sun set and the cold descended on the campus, and kept journals filled with reflections on homelessness and ways to reduce the growing problem.

Nervous parents visited the site and other people stopped by with hot chocolate donations to help fight the cold. The students ate one meager meal consisting only of rice.

“The students are well aware of homelessness in Rhode Island,” Sister Palazio said. “We post statistics on homelessness in the morning announcements. We have visited Crossroads, the largest homeless services organization in Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.”

“The shelters fill up fast in the winter,” she added.

At 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, the temperature was 25 degrees. A subdued group of students gathered around a makeshift campfire. “Last night, the fire went out about midnight,” says Sister Palazio, as students tried to rebuild and stoke the fire, hoping that it would provide some warmth.

Student Lisa D'Arcangelo, the leader of the Feinstein Hunger Brigade at the high school for the last two years, reflected on the experience. “It was interesting. We all thought we were going to be hungry. People kept bringing hot chocolate.” The only food allowed was rice, which was donated. But hunger was not the major issue for these students as much as staying warm. "It was still cold even with the blankets" stated D’Arcangelo.

“It was a lot of work to build a little cardboard house.” she added, referring to the makeshift homes that housed the students for the night.

Student Bridget Taylor stated, “It was pretty realistic staying out in the box in the cold weather.” She added that the “boxes offered some insulation against the cold.”

Sister Palazio noted that “it’s the simple things like kleenex, chap sticks. You realize — what do the homeless do when its cold out?”

Taylor added, “I have three pairs of socks on.” She noted, that for the homeless, “winter must be awful. The cold takes over. And it’s hard just living off of food donations.”

Brittany Johnson, who was wrapped from head to toe in a quilt, said, “It gets you thinking of what you have and what others don’t, especially when its cold. And what if you were sick, what do you do?”

Victoria LoBello, another Hunger Brigade member added, “It definitely made me think about the homeless experience. It wasn’t easy but it (the weather) could have been worse.”

“Every time I drink hot chocolate, I will think of this night, and how comforting the warmth of the cup was,” Sister Palazio.