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The first freezing weekend in February, more than 100 Clarence High School students will brave the elements for 10 hours to raise money for the poor and homeless.

This is the ninth annual Clarence High School Sleepout, and over those nine years, the school has raised more than $60,000 for local charities that benefit the less fortunate.

This year's goal is $15,000. Students who participate solicit pledges from fellow students, friends, teachers and neighbors. Also, local businesses donate money, food for participants, and boxes for the students to sleep in.

The event will begin around 8 p.m. Feb. 5.

Students who arrive first start to set up flattened appliance boxes. Slowly, more people trickle in. Parents who come to visit just shake their heads and laugh. They remind us to stay warm, then drive away in their heated cars. Students and teachers alike set up little villages of boxes.

Boxes are definitely a form of expression at the Sleepout. Some people arrive early to set up a state-of-the-art box. Others arrive around 9, and find that they are left with a flattened washing machine box. It doesn't really matter because sleeping is something that doesn't occur much at the Sleepout. Students are too busy building snowpeople, playing lacrosse and hockey, or just standing in circles dancing and singing.

I spoke with Laurie Leo, a Clarence junior who will be doing the Sleepout for the third consecutive year. We always set our boxes near each other and share supplies, heat and duct tape. "This year we are going for two-story boxes," she said.

Students from Clarence's Wilderness Wise class are basically in charge of winter-weather safety. They present two mandatory meetings for participants before the Sleepout. The presentations include what kind of clothing to wear, how to layer properly, and how to identify symptoms of cold-weather effects such as hypothermia. The major message? "Cotton kills!"

The cafeteria is armed with warm soup and hot chocolate, and is staffed all night by Parent Teacher Organization volunteers. Students can go inside to warm up, pull up their socks and grab some grub, but the chaperones quickly usher them outside.

The purpose of the Sleepout is not to "pretend" to be homeless for a night. It's to raise awareness in the community about homelessness and hunger, two things that plague our city, our nation and our world. Donations are accepted and can be mailed to the school:

Clarence High School Sleepout

c/o Student Council

9625 Main St.

Clarence, N.Y. 14031

Maria Pendolino is a junior at Clarence Senior High School.

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