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Fifth-graders learn what it's like to be homeless

"I feel tired, cold. I feel mad. I still feel cold and scared and sad. Homeless people have to put up with this every night. It is very sad." -- from the journal of Kelsie Nehrboss, 11, a fifth-grader at Carrollwood Day School.

By AMBER MOBLEY
Published April 21, 2007


CARROLLWOOD -- Cardboard lean-tos and boxes held together with duct tape provided beds and shelter.

Caroline Miller, 11, cut a window in the side of her box so she could chat with friend Lindsey Sand, also 11. Ryan Helber proclaimed his shelter the biggest. He and five others would spend the night in two refrigerator boxes and two smaller boxes that they linked together.

"It's like a condo," he said.

But as the night passed, and temperatures began dropping, the event felt less and less like a slumber party.

The 12 Carrollwood Day School fifth-graders slept in boxes on the brick entryway to the school Thursday night as part of a project to raise awareness about homelessness.

Shortly after 11 p.m., two Hillsborough County Sheriff's cruisers slowly drove through the parking lot of the private school, approaching the shanty town while flashing their red and blue lights.

Sgt. Rick Jahnke and Deputy Chris White stepped out of their cars.

"I was freaking out," said Sam Ebensberger, 10. "They told us to tear down our boxes or we were going to jail."

As Sam began to disassemble his shelter, teacher Barbie Monty told them it was part of the simulation.

"We tried to make it as realistic as we could," said Monty, who stayed the night along with her husband, Vinnie Monty, and principal Trudi Buscemi.

Each child was allowed one sandwich to save for breakfast in the morning or eat that night. They shared a few bags of chips.

"I know I'm going to want to go home," Chloe Schaefer, 10, said Thursday night from inside her communal box. "But homeless people can't say 'I want to go home,' because this is it."

They went to school in the same clothes Friday, hungry, bug-bitten, stiff and tired. Many of their fellow schoolmates glared and called them names.

"They were saying, 'You're a crazy person who lives in a box with a disease,'" said Savannah Bennett, 11.

"They stared at us like we were animals at the zoo," Lindsey said. "I'll never forget it."

Making it through the day was a new challenge.

"When I got up I felt like I wanted to go back to sleep," said Sam.

Ryan actually did fall asleep in class.

"The box was so uncomfortable I just kept moving all night," he said. "Until you experience something like that, you don't know how good you have it."

Staff photographer Daniel Wallace contributed to this story. Amber Mobley can be reached at amobley@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

 

EXCERPTS FROM THE STUDENTS' JOURNALS

"I feel very excited about sleeping in the box tonight. I think I am going to have a better feel of how the homeless kids feel when they get up in the morning. It's going to be a very interesting night. Sleeping in a box is very uncomfortable. It's very cramped and itchy." Sam Ebensberger, 10

"I am scared about the simulation. I think everyone is. We may not get to sleep. I'm so excited; the experience is once in a lifetime." Ryan Helber, 11

"One thing I remember was making a box and sleeping on cardboard. The mosquitos were horrible and when the police came we were all freaking out and I was like scooting towards our box because I was scared. Right now I feel a bit tired and kind of worn out. But at some moments I'm kind of hyper and excited. It was so cold and dark. Savannah, Chloe and I snuggled up inside." Marlo Leikam, 11