A group of Pickerington high school students recently traded the warmth and comforts of home for a courtyard as they sought to bring attention to homelessness in the central Ohio area.
Last week, a small "tent city" like those found in some of the wooded and out-of-sight areas of Columbus and other communities popped up in the Pickerington High School Central courtyard.
The tents were inhabited by PHS Central seniors Brandon Doerfler, Taylor Fleahman, Shayna Fowler and sophomore Jake Pineda; Pickerington High School North senior Ragan Hanood and Lancaster Career Center senior Trevor Huffman.
The students gave up creature comforts such as shelter, television, showers and home-cooked meals for six days.
Despite sporadic rain and nighttime temperatures that, at times, dropped below 20 degrees, the students weathered the elements and set aside vanity and material wants to put the issue of homelessness before fellow students and their community.
The project was the brainchild of Doerfler and Fowler, who were challenged in Central English teacher Peter Planisek's class to identify a societal problem and find a solution.
Rather than write a "boring" report, Fowler said, they decided to replicate the lives of homeless people as best they could, while also maintaining their regular school schedules.
"We all said, 'You know what? This is really heavy on our hearts,' " Fowler said.
"It kind of hit Brandon and I at the same time."
The two students recruited the other participants, in part because they were friends, but also because they wanted to create a sense of community among themselves, which often is seen among homeless people.
They also partnered with Risen Son, Columbus ministry that provides food clothes, job training and other resources to homeless people.
Doerfler and Fowler volunteer for the organization themselves, and were inspired by the passion of those who help the homeless, as well as the street people they've met who live largely outside of the rest of society.
"When I started volunteering for Risen Son, I had no idea that at the Short North, where I'm paying for overpriced food, that there are people living in tent cities," Fowler said.
As it does for area homeless people, Risen Son provided the students with virtually all of their living materials -- everything from tents and sleeping bags, to canned food.
The items were used, and not in the best condition.
"Some of it smells like cat pee," Fowler said.
By camping in the Central courtyard, the students were regularly seen by classmates, particularly those eating lunch daily in the heated school cafeteria.
That was important, Doerfler said, as the group wanted to force peers to take note of the issue.
He said he was surprised, however, by reactions classmates had to the project and the participants less-than-pristine appearances during the project.
"The biggest surprise for me, and I think most of us, is the negative feedback we've been getting from our peers and classmates," Doerfler said.
"There is definitely more positive feedback, but the negative came out of nowhere and none of us really expected it.
"People are criticizing how we are doing this without the knowledge of the social injustice 15 minutes away from their homes."
By experiencing "a small ounce" of what real homeless people do, however, Doerfler said he hopes it will open minds and move toward a solution to homelessness.
"I hope that our project will open the eyes of others that a lot of the homeless population is in 'tent cities' and camps in the woods," he said.
"I hope that our project will raise enough awareness so that people can know somewhat about our homeless population just minutes away from our warm homes," Doerfler said.
"And I hope people will get out and learn about Risen Son and what amazing things they're doing.
"Lastly, I hope that everyone comes out and serves these tent cities with us, gets to see a different, common side of homelessness, and starts thinking more about those less fortunate."
Additionally, the students' project sought to strike at homelessness by raising money for Risen Son to continue to provide resources to those who need them.
They've used their one link to technology -- smart phones -- to create video blogs about their project, and as of March 19 had raised $2,200 through an online campaign at https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/7heb6/ab/a2sKh7.
"We're not just saying homelessness exists. We're trying to raise awareness and get people to volunteer to help them."