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Being homeless for one night teaches a lesson to Ken-Ton students

It's cold in February in the Buffalo area.

For those who are homeless, finding a place to get out of the cold and stay warm is a struggle.

To learn about that experience, Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda students, parents and teachers will grab their sleeping bags and spend a night outside in the the parking lot of Hoover Middle School, protected only by a refrigerator box. A fire will burn nearby in a metal trash can. Younger children and those who want to come out of the cold will sleep inside on the gym floor.

Students will also collect food, clothing, small furniture, and cash for those who are less fortunate as part of the "Jerry Starr Annual Ken-Ton School's SleepOut" at 8 p.m. Feb. 3 at the school at 249 Thorncliff Road.

Each year, the SleepOut usually draws a modest crowd of stalwarts, growing from about 15 people to about 75. It has raised nearly $1 million worth of donations over the past 30 years.

Lisa Davidson, an instructional coach for science in the district, has been participating for the past 17 years and her whole family has joined the cause. Her oldest daughter Kaleigh, 18, a Kenmore-West graduate, is planning to participate for the 11th time.

Kaleigh started at age 8, when she was in third grade, sleeping in the gym during the SleepOut until she got a little older. She said all along it has been a challenge to convince her friends join her.

"It's cold," said Kaleigh. "My friends all thought I was crazy and said, 'Why would you do that?'"

But she said for her, the experience means more than sleeping in a cardboard box outside.

She gets wrapped up in layers of clothing and blankets, which she said are not always available for the truly homeless. Her sense of thankfulness comes the next morning, when she is able to go home, take a shower and curl up by the fireplace.

"For some people (homelessness) doesn't end, it's just another morning and the same thing at night," said Kaleigh.

Davidson said she does the SleepOut with Kaleigh and her  younger daughter, Rebekah, 13, who is an eighth-grader at Kenmore-West. Her older son, Nick, age 26, and husband Kirk, don't sleep outside, but help the SleepOut by transporting clothing donations and passing out warm coffee.

Organizer Stephen C. Ash, a retired math teacher, co-founded the SleepOut with two colleagues, the late Samuel "Jerry" Starr and retired teacher Charles Kohler. Both Starr and Kohler had been English teachers. Ash has remained involved despite being retired since 2001.

Starr's son, Kevin, founded a SleepOut in Clarence, which is now in its 27th year. The Clarence SleepOut will also be held on Feb. 3.

Ash said he has made the "First Friday in February" his mantra. He wants to make the SleepOut a worldwide day of caring and sharing.

"Anytime we can engage kids in an early age in a positive social activity, especially at a younger age, they will grow up with those kinds of values instilled in their psyche," said Ash.

Those who want to participate may sleep outside for all 10 hours, just a few hours, or drop off donations. Children must be accompanied by an adult. There will also be a raffle for a Starburst Amish quilt donated by Holmes Elementary School teacher Michael Fiels. Raffle tickets can be purchased at the event or by contacting Fiels at

Donations may be dropped off at the SleepOut between 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Those wishing to donate checks can make them payable to Ken-Ton Schools, E.T.C. (Educators Totally Committed) and mailed to Ken-Ton School's SleepOut, c/o Kenmore West Senior High, 33 Highland Parkway, Buffalo, NY 14223.

Cheektowaga students plan Sleepout for the Homeless



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