Sleepout continues to provide fundraising perspective
When Jerry Starr, an English and drama teacher at Kenmore West High School, initiated a fundraiser to increase awareness about the plight of the homeless, he had little indication that the annual event would become as much a family legacy as a district one.
Starr’s “Ken-Ton School Sleepout” began as an overnight event for faculty at Ken-Ton roughly 30 years ago, and it quickly grew in both prestige and accomplishment. When Starr’s son, Kevin, became the Student Council adviser at Clarence High School in 1991, he approached the school’s principal to inquire about adding students as participants.
“That first year, we had 46 kids. Since then, it’s continuously grown, but I do have to give credit to the teachers in the Ken-Ton district for coming up with the idea,” said Kevin Starr. “My father passed away about five years ago, and they named the event after him. This is kind of his legacy, which is why it means so much to me.”
From 9 p.m. this Friday to 5 a.m. Saturday, Clarence High faculty and students will participate in the 27th annual Sleepout on the high school grounds. Throughout the 26 Sleepouts held, more than $460,000 has been raised for local charities. The inaugural year saw a fundraising total of $2,000. Representative of how significantly the event has grown through the years, the goal for the 2017 event is $20,017, or “twenty seventeen in twenty seventeen.”
“It’s a long night. We have cardboard boxes, duct tape and utility knives. The kids build shelters for themselves. Sometimes they connect to one another, but it definitely takes them a couple of hours,” Starr said. “They’ll play Frisbee and football, but I’d say around 1 in the morning it gets pretty quiet. I’d say by about 2 or 3 a.m., they’re ready to go home, but they have to stay until 5.”
The event is always held the first Friday in February in the parking lot at Clarence High School, and every cent raised is divided among local groups that include The Friends of Night People, Community Action Information Center, Gospel Expansion Foundation, Little Portion Friary, Habitat for Humanity, Family Promise of WNY, Hearts for the Homeless, Gerard Place, Buffalo City Mission, Gateway Longview Foundation, the Clarence Community Food Pantry and the Meals on Wheels Foundation of WNY.
Student Council President and Clarence High senior Alexis Kim has followed directly in the footsteps of her sister, Jackie, who also served as president of the Student Council when she graduated four years ago. Through the three years that Kim has participated in the event, she has raised $1,930 and has set a goal of $2,017 for this year.
“This is such a unique fundraiser because it really creates empathy. It allows us to experience what the less fortunate do even if it’s only for a night,” Kim said. “We’re so lucky here, I think, so this allows us to give back in a way.”
Most of the donations come from local businesses eager to support charities within the community. Students who participate are required to commit to fundraising pledges that might range anywhere from $20 to $1,000. Once the money comes in on the night of the event, the proceeds are divided amongst the various charities and checks are sent to them.
“The meaning of this event has become more important for me. I don’t think I was as aware of how much it really helps people,” Kim said. “Now that I’m a senior, I can see the impact that this fundraiser has.”
Starr expects to see about 75 students participate this year and believes temperatures will be roughly 15 degrees — colder than average, he said. He briefly commented on what he sees as trifling criticism that the event has received in the past, asking why participants don’t invite the homeless into their houses if they are serious about the issue.
“The kids are aware that homelessness exists, but for one night they get to experience it to a degree,” Starr said. “We’re simply trying to make kids more aware of what they have and give them a memory of what it’s like to be cold and uncomfortable. We want them to know what it’s like to be on the other side, which will hopefully turn them into more community-minded people once they leave us.”
Donations can be dropped off the night of the Sleepout or may be mailed to Clarence Senior High School Student Council, 9625 Main St., Clarence, NY 14031. Checks can be made payable to “CHS Student Council – Sleepout.”