Teens get a taste of homeless life

Published March 24, 2007

INVERNESS - While most of us were snuggled under our bed covers when the temperature dropped to 37 degrees and the winds gusted to 16 mph on March 16, 10 local teenagers spent the time outside, huddled in nylon tents. It was their way of learning what it feels like to be homeless.

The teens are part of the Vineyard FOG (Founded on God), the youth group of Vineyard Christian Fellowship. The idea for the weekend came from youth pastor Terry Sponholz, who with his wife, Twilla, and another adult supervised the event on church grounds.

"These kids are our future leaders," Sponholz said. "If they can learn now that this is what homeless is like, maybe between them and God, they'll be able to reach out and be something in society."

He also wanted the teens to deepen their relationship with God. There would be a couple of short devotionals and time alone with their Bibles.

"I'm letting them run around and do whatever they want to do," Sponholz said. "I want them to burn up energy because when hunger sets in, that's when they're going to get to spend their own time with God and talk to him about that feeling in their stomach. So maybe they can respect and understand when they see somebody that's hungry and cold, they might want to reach out and give them a helping hand."

The weekend began after a meal at 10 p.m. There would be no more food, and only water to drink, until 8 a.m. Sunday. Sponholz told the youths they could bring tents.

Early March 17, the teens were united in their opinion of the night before: It was bitterly cold.

"The ground was extremely cold," Dan Caskey said. "If there wasn't wind, it would have been fine. But it was freezing."

"My teeth were shivering," Tom Fadden said. "We couldn't get warm."

Unlike those in tents, Fadden brought only a molded plastic box to sleep in. He curled his upper body in it until about 3 a.m.

"I broke down and went in one of the tents," Fadden said. "It didn't help. It only cut down the wind. But it was better than nothing."

The teens learned that keeping busy was a way to keep warm. Caskey found a working hose to clean up a bit. Fadden fashioned a "baseball" out of a crushed can to hit with a bat. They gathered wood for a fire. One of the teens showed off the sign they had posted on a tree by their tents. "Hobo Hotel," it said.

While the teens were allowed to go into a church building for the bathroom, the rest of the time was spent outside. That went for the youth leaders, too.

"I'm with them all the way," Sponholz said. "I'm not going to leave them. These are my kids."

Tim Butterworth shared another reason for being with the kids. "They are teen boys and girls," he said. "They have to be watched. So we keep our tent flaps open so we can see them, which allows all the cold air in ours. Theirs are sealed up nice and tight," he said, laughing.

Twilla Sponholz was laughing, too. "I forgot what it was like to be around a bunch of teenage girls," she said. "There were things worse than the cold and the wind. They wouldn't shut up!"

Amid the fun, fellowship and laughter, the lesson was clear: People live this way every day.

There were spiritual lessons as well.

For Brittany Dalbow, 14, getting closer to her friends and to God was of great importance. "I just got into Christianity, so it's kind of new to me," she said.

Later in the day, the teens were driven into town to hand out fliers for an upcoming church event. It was midday, and with growling stomachs, the cooking smells emanating from McDonald's were hard to take.

"Oh, man, we were starving by then," Caskey said later. "We could smell that a mile away. It made me want to go beg."

By midnight Saturday, the teens who had not gone into their tents sat around a fire. Without the biting wind, it felt warmer than the previous night. They were subdued. And hungry.

But they were determined to stick it out.

Sunday morning, the group was treated to eggs, bacon, toast, cereal, biscuits and gravy. "We were sitting there stuffing our faces full of it," Dalbow said.

Sponholz said he had accomplished everything he had intended with the weekend.

"Little Amanda got sick because she didn't eat," he said. "So we gave her a banana first thing in the morning and that straightened her up. She said, 'I didn't think going one day without food would be so bad.' And I said, 'Now you know how those people feel.' "

"I'm very proud of them," Sponholz added. "Very proud."