GILLETTE (AP) — For most of the 30 hoodie-and-blanket-swaddled people at Gillette College, a cold evening in cardboard boxes with only soup to eat was their first brush with homelessness.
For 25-year-old Seth Nawrocki, it was a time warp back to an unpleasant few months when he was homeless — although then he didn’t even have a cardboard box.
“I was completely unsheltered,” Nawrocki said. “I was completely alone and had nowhere to go.”
Fortunately, the one night was not a literal repeat of those times. Arranged by Gillette College Counseling Services staff and the college’s Active Minds Club, the overnight Cardboard Village event was meant to simulate a night of homelessness to educate students about the hardships faced by those with nowhere to call home.
While most students attending gained a valuable perspective on what it means to be homeless, Nawrocki had a different goal.
For Nawrocki, camping out in a box for the Cardboard Village event was more about making a point than gaining a new perspective. At the age of 18, the Michigan native spent three homeless months in Gillette after family disputes and getting in trouble left him on the streets.
He had come to Gillette to live with a relative when his family in Michigan turned him out. After more troubles with family in Gillette saw the same consequence, he took to the streets.
“I just wandered from place to place looking for where I could sleep,” he said. “I mostly spent time under bridges, and I would go to gas stations to shower.”
During this time, he felt hopeless, aimless, alone and uncared for.
“It just seemed like everyone totally ignored me,” he said about how most people perceive the homeless. “It felt like I was invisible.”
And as far as finding community with other homeless people, that turned out to be a fantasy.
“I just felt really bitter and angry,” Nawrocki said. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I just kept to myself.”
Later that year, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Marines, where he served for the next four years. He credits the Marines with turning his life around, as his path hadn’t been taking him anywhere before that.
“The Marines taught me self-discipline and leadership skills and that I can do anything I want to in life if I work at it,” he said.
Nawrocki is also president of Gillette College’s Veterans Club. He signed the club up to participate in Cardboard Village to make a point about homelessness and hopefully promote awareness of the hardships of homeless life, especially among down-and-out veterans.
He counts himself lucky that when he got out of the Marines he was able to get a job, a place to live and go back to school. He’s studying secondary education and business management at the college.
Other veterans aren’t so fortunate.
“I wanted to make a statement about homelessness that veterans often struggle with, especially if they have mental issues,” he said.
While Nawrocki was acquainted with the homeless life — though he himself had never lived in a cardboard box — the evening was a learning experience for the other students in seven groups that participated.
Setup of the cardboard dwellings about seven hours, and with the afternoon’s strong winds, some groups had to start over several times after the wind tore apart their duct-taped dwellings just as they were nearly finished.
By the time all the shelters were built, the sun had set and the cold began to set in. As part of the event, participants were only given soup and hot chocolate to eat — food a typical homeless person would get at a shelter, said Susan Serge, the college’s director of counseling.
“We wanted to make the experience as close to actual homelessness as we could,” she said.
Participants were not allowed to bring snacks, unless they needed to for medical reasons.
After setup of the dwellings was complete and people had eaten, Staci Bungard, executive director for the Council of Community Services, and Bertine Bahige, Campbell County High School math teacher, spoke to the students about homelessness.
Bungard spoke about how homelessness is a real problem in the United States and the world, and that it doesn’t always look like the stereotypical homeless man on the streets. Many homeless people have temporary housing, are “couch surfers,” live in their cars and look no different from anyone else.
She also said that according to statistics from the Campbell County School District, there are 289 youth in Campbell County who are technically homeless, whether they are sheltered or unsheltered. That’s about 3 percent of the overall school district population.
Bahige shared his experience of being homeless in Africa after escaping from kidnappers who took him from his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was 13 years old.
The students listened with rapt attention to the speakers, particularly moved by Bahige’s story.
“His story was absolutely amazing,” said Anthony Carlson, representing the college’s journalism club.
The evening wasn’t all serious, though. Students had fun building and decorating their cardboard houses, using supplies provided by the Active Minds Club, and competing in a house decorating contest, which the Veterans Club won.
The evening’s sole staff group, comprising six staff members from various departments, gave the veterans a run for their money with their massive, round cardboard house built with a small tree as its interior centerpiece.
The event also served as a canned food drive for the Council of Community Services. To participate, each group had to pay “rent” — a donation of at least 10 canned food items. Again, the Veterans Club came out on top, bringing a haul of 315 canned food items to the event.
Overall, Cardboard Village collected 560 cans of food that will all be donated to the Council of Community Services for its Soup Kitchen and food pantry.
“We wanted to bring in canned food for the council, because we knew they were getting a little low on supplies,” Serge said.
In the end, the event came to a somewhat abrupt halt around 6 a.m. when the heavens opened up and the students and staff were pelted with hail and rain from a sudden, thunderous storm.
It didn’t take long for them to tear down their makeshift houses, pack up their stuff, get in their cars and head to their actual homes to warm up and prepare for another regular day.
However, the evening’s events made them grateful that they had homes to go back to when the deluge struck.
“This was a pretty great learning experience,” Student Senate member Garrett Mills said. “We’re lucky that we can just go home when the weather turns bad. Not everyone can do that.”