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Island Pacific School marks 10 years of Sleep Outs

The fundraisers have raised more than $90,000 for Covenant House

Island Pacific School celebrated a service milestone last month by participating in their 10th annual Sleep Out in support of Covenant House.

The fundraiser is now a fundamental part of students’ final year at IPS. The work began a decade ago when Jennifer Henrichsen, assistant head of school and Grade 9 homeroom teacher, was exploring the community service aspect of the program with her students.

Henrichsen explained the students were looking for a greater challenge. “They wanted to work with kids that are their age, they wanted to give back to other youth, and I wanted them to have an organization that had the full picture of support when you’re dealing with homelessness,” she says.

So she reached out to Covenant House, and the partnership was born. The Vancouver-based organization works with young people age 16 to 24 who are experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. Covenant House offers several support programs across its three downtown locations, along with dozens of residences for youth receiving assistance.

“It’s so much more than a shelter,” says Jennifer Hall, manager of corporate foundation and community fundraising for Covenant House. She says the group’s work centres on a continuum of care, which includes outreach teams working on the ground, counselling and guidance, assistance with substance abuse, and spaces to either drop-in or stay based on the youth’s needs.

“It’s a whole program where we nurture the whole person,” says Hall. “The youth come and they make the decision to walk through our doors, they make the decision to stay or not… which I think is part of the success of the program. Because it’s for youth who have gotten to a place where they are ready to reach out for support.”

Island Pacific School has partnered with Covenant House to take part in the Sleep Out fundraiser for the past 10 years. / Island Pacific School

One of the activities run by Covenant House is the Sleep Out program. The fundraiser takes on different forms depending on who is participating, and includes a student edition which the IPS kids take part in. Students spend the day volunteering at Covenant House before experiencing some of the realities of finding yourself without a home. This includes finding food with minimal resources, and of course spending the night outside. While adult sleep outs often take place in the alley behind Covenant House, the student versions take place at the school’s location of choice, in this case Island Pacific School’s own backyard.

Hall says the point is not to pretend you are homeless. “It’s not about trying to approximate what that would be like, because we’re doing it for a night… It’s about creating space for empathy and awareness,” she explains. “When they walk by someone who’s outside on the street they’ll see the person first before they see the homelessness… It creates understanding of why someone might be in that circumstance.”

“And it creates space for you to have a conversation and learn about it without there being any judgement. Obviously, the fundraising side of it is really important for Covenant House, but also the awareness building. When we’re working with a school, those students talk to their parents who talk to their friends and it just helps really grow that understanding of why somebody might be in the situation they’re in,” says Hall.

The IPS sleep out day this year was February 28, but preparation for the Grade 9’s begins months in advance. A member of Covenant House visits the school in December to talk about what to except and what fundraising for the event looks like. Then, when the week of the sleep out arrives, Henrichsen gathers the students to “make sure that they were aware that they were going into a situation that may be uncomfortable for them… I told them and their parents that I wanted them to be cold, hungry, and tired and wet. And we checked all those boxes, which is the point.”

Students volunteer at Covenant House during the day as part of the Sleep Out. / Island Pacific School

The day starts at school with a ferry to the mainland and bus ride to downtown. The students then walk down Granville Street to Covenant House for their volunteer work, which this year was helping prepare for an adult sleep out later that week. At 4 pm it’s then time to go out and find dinner – with a budget of just $3 each. By pooling their resources Henrichsen said they were able to scrape together some meals, such as peanut butter sandwiches or instant noodles. But healthier or more substantial meals were off the table.

After spending some time downtown – in this case in the elements during a rainy day – the students return to Bowen and IPS, where they settle in for the night outside. A recap of the day includes a talk with Vancouver Coastal Health nurse Kristen Locher about her work on the Downtown Eastside, and then it is off to bed.

In the morning students write reflections on the day before, and then it’s right off to class – the reality for many youth who find themselves homeless but are still trying to pursue their education.

“They also realize that doing this for just one night was hard for them. But if you had to do that night after night after night for months, that they were getting a very light experience, although it was it was impactful enough to understand that,” says Henrichsen.

Students write reflections on the Sleep Out experience the morning after. / Island Pacific School

She adds that focusing on young people further drives the point home. “I think understanding that kids even their age can be dealing with issues that they don’t normally have to think about - domestic violence, physical violence, foster care systems, drug addiction within their families, never mind within themselves, mental health issues, all of those things that contribute to a youth being unhoused or being out of their house and trying to find their way - it’s so much more resonating when you realize that could be a 15-year old,” says Henrichsen.

The Sleep Outs serve as more than just an educational experience, there’s also a fundraising component which IPS has taken part in from the start. In their decade of work with Covenant House the school has raised more than $90,000 to support their efforts, including more than $9,000 this year.

“It seriously blows us away every single year because they’re this tiny school and they just are mighty. They raised so many donations,” says Hall.

Henrichsen says the impact is lasting, and school alumni continue to support Covenant House and similar organizations after graduating IPS. “The biggest thing is to have them understand that people who are unhoused are part of our community, and to build empathy for people dealing with harder times. And that there is hope, and they can be part of a better future and a more hopeful future.”

“The kids raising the money can see the support programs that Covenant House provides, that there are good news stories coming out of there. A big thing that we talked about is that someone who is unhoused, that may be a short chapter in their life. And it’s only with help that they can close that chapter and start a new one,” says Henrichsen.