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AN EYE-OPENER

Where can you find more than 200 teenagers playing football, dancing and throwing Frisbees in a school parking lot at 2 a.m. -- with permission?

The answer: Clarence High School's Sleepout for the Homeless.

Blustery winds gusted with no mercy and wind chills dipped below zero Friday, but that didn't stop students from spending the night in cardboard boxes in the school parking lot (although we did go home at 5 a.m. instead of 6).

The event has raised a total of $94,000 since 1991 ($20,000 last year alone). Participation is on the rise; 46 students participated in the first sleepout, and this year we had more than 200. The sleepout may be fun, but it's for a serious cause. All money donated goes to seven organizations that help the homeless Western New York.

"I'm always blown away by the heart of the kids here," said Mr. Johnson, a teacher who has been involved in the sleepout since its second year. "You hear about how suburban kids are pampered or self-centered, but no one has to be here."

The sleepout has been criticized by some for not actually exemplifying what it's like to be homeless. We wear appropriate clothing (participants have to attend a meeting about how to dress); we also have the luxury of periodically warming up with hot chocolate, soup and snacks for a few minutes in the school cafeteria. "Being homeless" isn't the aim; the purpose of the sleepout is to raise awareness and more importantly, money.

This was my first sleepout, and it was eye-opening. We're all used to frigid Buffalo weather, but when you're outside on a night like Friday for that long, it seems much colder -- even with all that winter apparel. Lauren Enright, a sophomore, agreed: "I didn't realize how quickly you get cold. I don't know how homeless people do it."

Students began arriving at 8:30 p.m. in an "inlet" of the parking lot where sides of the building offered protection from the wind. Early arrivals got school-provided refrigerator boxes. Many students brought their own.

Some boxes were waterproofed with plastic or tarps. Sophomore Laura Warner decorated the inside of hers: "We drew a cat, a window with polka-dotted curtains and some other stuff," she said. Some boxes were stocked with food, blankets, CDs, etc. Many students brought flashlights, but one box had a strobe light and one of my friends hung a fluorescent light inside her box with Velcro.

Two groups set up tents and brought lawn chairs to sit on while they listened to music and warmed up by a portable fireplace.

There wasn't a lot of sleeping going on, as we all found ways to entertain ourselves. There were spirited games of football and Frisbee. Stereos blasted everything from Dave Matthews to Sir Mix-A-Lot while people danced and sang. Eventually, some students did try to sleep, but the high noise level and low temperature made it difficult to get in more than a short nap.

The PTO offered hot chocolate, brownies, cookies and Rice Krispie treats in the cafeteria, and there were three kinds of soup donated by restaurants. We weren't allowed to stay inside too long, though. It snowed lightly all night and stayed very cold but luckily there was no big accumulation.

Overall, we had fun at the Sleepout, all the while knowing that our night out would benefit the homeless. Mr. Starr, Student Council adviser and founder of the sleepout, reflected: "Other than raising money and raising awareness about homelessness, the best thing about the sleepout is that it shows people the great things that teenagers are capable of doing."

Donation checks can be made out to: Clarence High School Student Council Sleepout and mailed to Clarence High School, Student Council, 9625 Main St., Clarence, N.Y. 14031.

Amanda Pendolino is a sophomore at Clarence High School.

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