GRAYSLAKE – There had been a chance of rain in the forecast earlier in the day, but 17-year-old Shaina Lesniewicz was relieved to see the clouds had broken up in the night sky Nov. 2.
The ground was still wet from the previous day’s rain, though, and since she didn’t have a cardboard box, she dropped the garbage bag containing her belongings next to a bench and spread one of her blankets over the unforgiving wooden surface. After pulling her beanie low over her ears, she hopped up onto the table and wrapped her other blanket around her body and made herself comfortable.
It wasn’t that cold right now, she thought – somewhere in the low 40s – but the temperature would dip into the 30s before sunrise the next day, and it was sure to be a long night.
The buzz of conversation kept her company as other teenagers settled in for the night, rustling in their makeshift shelters made of cardboard boxes that likely would collapse on top of them at the faintest of breezes. Lesniewicz took comfort in the fact that tonight she wasn’t alone.
Indeed, Lesniewicz was surrounded by the nearly 30 students who signed up for the annual “Sleepout” in Christopher Kubic’s Public Service Practicum class at Grayslake North High School.
The group, made up of seniors, challenged themselves to spend the night outside, using only the supplies they could fit into a garbage bag in order to get a firsthand understanding of what homeless people face on a daily basis.
“It’s a great event for students who definitely have an interest in social justice and social issues to get a real sense of empathy for what the homeless go through,” said Dr. Mikkel Storaasli, superintendent of Grayslake Community High School District 127. “It’s a very, very small taste, but at my previous school we did the same thing and in the morning they had a much better sense of ‘Wow, people go through this every single day.’”
Kubic said this is the ninth year he’s held the sleepout in his Public Services Practicum class, and each year his students amaze him by how seriously they take the project.
“Hearing them talk about it ahead of time and hearing them say, ‘I’m nervous about it’ – that’s really cool because they’ll really think about it,” he said. “When it’s over every year, they say, ‘I’m so thankful for my bed. There’s so much that I take for granted.’ It’s really just a profound experience.”
The class is a two-semester elective that focuses on project-based learning, Kubic said, encompassing facets of civic engagement mixed with aspects of business, sociology and government classes. The course began at Grayslake Central, and when Kubic first heard about it, he knew it was a class that was “right up his alley.” When there was no need for a Public Service Practicum teacher at Grayslake Central, he requested a transfer to Grayslake North in order to head up the class there, where he has been able to shape the course according to his background in psychology.
“North and Central’s courses are different, but at the core they’re really about providing hands-on experience and leadership and addressing social issues,” he said. “We’re trying to get outside of the class; it’s not enough for me that the 42 kids in my class get this experience. I want the class to get out of the four walls of the classroom.”
While Lesniewicz got settled on her bench, classmate Mariah Cox surveyed her cardboard shelter for the night with a critical eye as she pulled a headband over her ears.
“Imagine having to actually think about this on the street where there’s cars,” she said. “Like right now, I’m trying to think about this so strategically.”
Leading up to the sleepout, Kubic challenged the students to make the night as authentic as possible for themselves, and they met that challenge without flinching. The student-run planning committee debated various rules, including the garbage bag rule and whether to allow electronic devices or snacks on the sleepout. Ultimately they allowed devices but vetoed snacks, arguing that homeless people often have devices but don’t always have food available during the night.
Kubic added that students were able to bring more items with them, which would be stored with security for the night. They would have access to the additional supplies if they truly felt they needed them and could, of course, move inside if the cold got too much for them. Safety is the foremost concern for his students, he said; however he left it up to them to establish the ground rules of the night.
Ultimately, many students eagerly anticipated a challenging evening in order to gain a greater understanding and deeper empathy for the homeless.
“I’m really hoping that not only do we become more grateful for what we have, but also reduce that social distance between us and someone who’s homeless,” 17-year-old Kat Black said. “I think that’s something that we can really take away. Not only are we experiencing what they’re experiencing – obviously, it’s not that severe – but we can understand them a little more.”
Lesniewicz set an alarm on her phone before stuffing it under the blanket covering her bench, vowing to ignore electronics for the rest of the night. This is her second sleepout – she’d taken Kubic’s Public Service Practicum class last year as well – so she knew what to expect. Last year she said she slept in a box and decided to step up her game this year for a more authentic experience.
“I feel like if I’m out here, it’s not the full effect because homeless people sleep on benches,” she said. “That’s why I’m making this experience more authentic. I know what I did last year – some people don’t even get boxes. You have to care a lot to take this class, and that’s why I like it because you know these kids wanna be here.”