Overnighter is no party

"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.

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 shantytown 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.