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Guilford 16-year-old Ella Stanley hopes to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless, and support for non-profit Columbus House by putting on The Big Sleep Out on the Guilford Green on Saturday, April 28. (Photo by Elizabeth Kozarec )
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To raise awareness about the homeless, build a more compassionate community, and support Columbus House, Ella Stanley hopes to inspire at least 100 people to give up their warm bed for one night and make a sleeping bag their home on the Guilford Green on Saturday, April 28, at The Big Sleep Out.
Inspired by homeless men she’s met volunteering with St. George Church’s Abraham’s Tent, the 16-year-old Guilford teen has been working for many months to gather support from local faith organizations, get approval from the town, and pull together plans for The Big Sleep Out.
Ella has been volunteering for four years with Abraham’s Tent, an annual, weeklong overnight winter respite at St. George’s that provides home-cooked meals, shelter, and community companionship for 12 homeless men selected by non-profit Columbus House of New Haven.
“My role is to volunteer and socialize with the men, to talk with them and make them feel at home,” explains Ella. “For me, it’s been really eye-opening. I never had that direct contact with people who are homeless. Like anyone else, I had stereotypes and images in my own mind.”
Ella quickly realized she had more in common with the men than she could have imagined.
“I saw these people had families. They had dreams they wanted to aspire to, not different from my own life. That’s the idea I wanted to bring to Guilford. I wanted to take what I learned and bring it to a bigger scale,” says Ella.
Seeking the best way to widen the scope of understanding, Ella started researching The Big Sleep concept, which she says has taken root in Australia and the United Kingdom and is spreading worldwide.
“I saw this idea for sleeping out for a night, and being put in the shoes of someone who’s homeless,” says Ella. “To really bring home that idea, I wanted to have it on the town green, so people driving by would see it. The green is perfect, because it has a history of being a gathering place.”
Ella also wanted to help support Columbus House, which has been assisting the homeless for 35 years and currently serves more than 3,000 people in the region (learn more at www.columbushouse.org).
Ella first brought her vision for Guilford’s Big Sleep Out to the president of the St. George Pastoral Council last May. Over the summer, she also worked with Columbus House and brought other faith organizations on board. By fall 2017, she received town permission to use a part of the green and was firming up sponsorship information, registration forms and procedures, and program information (all of which can now be found at thebigsleepoutguilford.weebly.com).
On April 28, The Big Sleep Out will be held in the center diamond of the Guilford Green. Sign in takes place from 5 to 6 p.m. in front of St. George Church on Whitfield Street; participants will be given wristbands to allow access to all of the night’s programs. Pre-registration is required in advance at the website.
While there is no registration fee, participants (teams or individuals) are asked to make a pledge or donation. Proceeds support Columbus House programs as well as pay for the event’s supplies, presentations, and workshops.
While Ella is hoping to see a cross-section of the shoreline population represented at The Big Sleep Out, families with younger children are asked to participate in all but the sleep-out portion of the night. While there will be a fit pit warming station on the green, there will be no other trappings of a typical camp-out for the night’s outdoor sleep over.
“The idea that we’re trying to express a lot is that this isn’t going to be a party with people coming to sleep out on the green,” says Ella. “It’s going to be an experience that’s a lot like being homeless for the night. They’re not allowed to have any sort of camping structure on the green, and no tents or stakes. We’re asking people bring a sleeping bag, blankets, coats, and other warm things to wear.”
Event sponsorships are also available at levels of $1,000 and $500 as well as “Friend of Sleepout” $100 donations. Details on sponsorship packages are available at thebigsleepoutguilford.weebly.com. Ella is currently working to drive in tax-deductible sponsorships to help make the evening a success and raise as much as possible for Columbus House.
A Thought-Provoking Night
To help drive home the message at the center of The Big Sleep Out, Ella has enlisted assistance from Columbus House and St. George’s, Guilford’s Christ Episcopal, and First Congregational churches and support from many others to offer several thought-provoking programs on April 28.
At one location, Ella says the idea of homeless people as “people first” will be highlighted in the documentary film People Who Are Homeless. The film was produced by Ella’s older sister, Teddi Stanley, as her Guilford High School (GHS) capstone project a few years back. Ella says her parents made a point of bringing their children in to participate in community service from a young age.
“I grew up doing a lot of work in community service and doing things at Columbus House in general,” says Ella. “I like doing community-oriented things, and working with other people coming together for the greater good.”
Currently a GHS sophomore, Ella is a GHS Interact Club member and GHS Field Hockey and Fencing team member, and a member of the Guilford Foundation’s Youth Advisory Group, In addition to playing viola and piano (including performing with the GHS theater pit orchestra), Ella learned a bit about guitar playing from none other than one of the homeless men she met while volunteering with Abraham’s Tent.
“He was very talented and he really enjoyed teaching me how to play the guitar,” says Ella, adding, “...another gentleman taught me some cool card tricks!”
Participants of The Big Sleep Out will be also able to learn more about those who have been homeless, from the men themselves, says Ella.
“For one of the workshops, Columbus House is bringing a speakers’ panel to the Congregational Church, with clients who have been in that situation,” says Ella. “They’ll be able to share their story, where they came from, where they are now, and how Columbus House has helped them. It will really give people a direct idea of what it means to be homeless.”
A third workshop will discuss the work of Columbus House and give participants the chance to get involved by signing up to volunteer with assistance projects. A fourth program is a talk by a Yale educator on “The Economics of Homelessness,” hosted by Christ Episcopal Church, says Ella.
“The talk’s about how someone becomes homeless and what it means to be homeless,” says Ella. “Sometimes a homeless person is a young person sleeping on sofas, going from friend’s house to friend’s house. Or homelessness can be families squeezing in relatives because they can’t afford a home.”
Ella’s friend Julie Ornstein will oversee The Big Sleep Out Quilt activity on April 28. The quilt workshop gives participants a fabric square on which to “draw or decorate with an image of something they did or learned, or became aware of, or that their eyes were opened to and saw for first time in a new way,” says Ella. “We’re hoping to put together a Big Sleep Out quilt with all of those moments on it.”
Another friend, Caitlin Cunneen, will manage The Big Sleep Out’s stamp/currency stations.
“People will earn stamps for participating in workshops, and then they in turn have to spend them on their meal and on materials they might want to use for the night, like cardboard or plastic tarps,” says Ella. “The idea is to create an environment that’s similar to what a homeless person experiences. They’re worrying about how they can afford their next meal, get money, and just sustain themselves.”
At The Big Sleep Out’s “Soup Kitchen,” participants will hear a short presentation on food service provided at Columbus House, and can also sign up to help out with meals at Columbus House. The talk and meal will be provided by one of the regular volunteer cooks at Columbus House.
“The night’s meal will be something that they would serve on a regular basis at Columbus House,” says Ella. “Even though we’re calling it the Soup Kitchen, it’s not a thin broth! They serve some pretty good meals.”
Ella thanks Columbus House, as well clergy and community volunteers including Rev. Dr. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham, John Brooks, Laurie Desmet, Sheree DiMario, Harry Huben, Elizabeth Kozarec, Tony Sicignano, Rev. Stephen Sledesky, Francine Wainer, and Rev. Harrison West, for their assistance with programming. In addition, she thanks the St. George Men’s Club, which will spend the night on the green overseeing The Big Sleep Out from lights out at 10 p.m. on Saturday night until it’s time to pack up at 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
While this will be her first time gathering community members to participate in The Big Sleep Out on the Guilford Green, Ella hopes it won’t be the last.
“I hope we get a lot of interest in this,” she says. “Our goal, and what would be a huge success, would be 100 participants. And it would be great if we could get this going, and do it again next year, and hopefully keep it going every year.”
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