Caldwell, N.J. – April 13, 2018 – They bundled up in layers, grabbed their sleeping bags and assembled their boxes to protect themselves while they slept outside on the Newman Center Plaza on Caldwell’s campus the night of April 12. Several students took part in the Campus Ministry project Boxtown aimed at raising awareness about homelessness.
Before bed, the students gathered on the plaza and heard a presentation by a speaker from the Midnight Run, a volunteer organization dedicated to finding common ground between the housed and the homeless. They had a bonfire, took part in a poverty simulation and watched a segment of “The Human Experience,” a film about a band of brothers who traveled the world searching for the meaning of life. In the video, the brothers slept outside on the streets of New York City.
Then the Caldwell students settled down for the night; some said they did not get to sleep until the wee hours of the morning, awakening shortly after hearing birds chirping or athletes heading into the gym for their early workouts.
For sophomore Maria Lesniewski, a Campus Ministry member and an organizer of Boxtown, a night on the cold, hard ground was a reminder not only of the physical discomforts the homeless suffer, but also the mental discomforts from the fear they face since they most likely do not feel safe.
Freshman Orges Rrapaj was happy he took part in the project. “We have so much to be thankful for, and sometimes we are selfish, only thinking about our clothes and cars,” but participating in Boxtown, “you realize how thankful you should be,” since some people don’t have a roof over their heads or even a place to rest their shoulders, he said.
Lesniewski and the Campus Ministry project organizers Brooke McPherson and Devin Lattuga attended the Dominican National Preaching in Action Conference, a program of the Dominican Youth Movement USA, at Molloy College in Rockville Center, New York, last May. Each university was given the charge to come up with a project to bring back to its campus. Caldwell chose Boxtown.
McPherson was familiar with Boxtown since she had taken part in it during her high school days at Immaculate Conception in Lodi. The issue of homelessness gained her attention even more last December when she was walking around New York City in 15-degree weather and observed spikes placed outside of hotel buildings so the homeless could not sleep there. She was “appalled by it. They are a forgotten group of people.” Boxtown is a good chance to “to live in the shoes” of those who are less fortunate, she said.
Director of Campus Ministry Colleen O’Brien was excited when McPherson, Lesniewski and Lattuga expressed interest in organizing a Boxtown event for Caldwell. “I think this type of experience gives the students a little sense of what thousands of people struggle with every day in our country, even in our own backyard. They truly embraced all aspects of last night from the speaker, to the simulation, to spending the whole night sleeping outside. I hope they each learned something new about homelessness and what the everyday struggles are for people living on the streets.”
Sophomore Sherif Habib said Boxtown made students “pull back” and consider others. “It helps you think about how the world is a larger picture.”