Homelessness Awareness Week: lessons in empathy

A night sleeping in a cardboard box on the Kennesaw State University campus taught Carlos Garcia that little things go a long way.

Little things. Like not having a pillow. Like pain.

Garcia had arrived for the Homelessness Awareness Week (HAW) campus sleepout with sleeping bags, a hat, gloves and extra socks. But it wasn’t enough. His legs were exposed to the cool night air and his arms were pretzeled into the small space.

“I just felt the breeze coming in through this one hole,” said Garcia, 20, a business major. “It’s just you and the box.”

It was a short lesson in what it is like to be homeless. About 70 Kennesaw State students spent two nights sleeping on the campus grounds at the culmination HAW 2012, which began Oct. 8. This was the fifth year of the effort that was started to give students, faculty and staff insight into homelessness, said Lana Wachniak, professor emeritus of criminal justice and sociology.

“It’s more than the symbolism associated with it,” she said. “We are trying to help our students understand the social issue, the social problem. But we are also trying to get them to develop empathy for others.

Three years ago Judy Brown-Allen, a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, started a thrift shop as part of HAW. This year’s thrift store, which was set up in the Social Sciences building, collected 477 pairs of blue jeans; 180 jackets and coats; 300 pairs of new gloves; and eight large boxes of canned food items. The Extended Stay America Hotel on Busbee Parkway also donated comforters, bed sheets and toiletries, said Flora Lowe-Rockett, a student assistant at the Lifelong Learning Center. The Delta Epsilon Iota Academic Honor Society also donated food and clothes, she said.

The donations went to Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless, MUST Ministries and 7 Bridges to Recovery. Campus partners in this initiative included the Center for Student Leadership, Adult Learner Programs, Student Life and the KSU Department of Public Safety.

This year’s HAW included three days of speakers on campus. The keynote speaker was Roy Juarez Jr., who recounted how he was homeless as a teenager. Still, Juarez was able to graduate from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas in 2009. He is currently traveling across the country on his “My Bag, My Home: Homeless by Choice Tour” with a simple message — don’t give up.

“Never stop dreaming. The gift of dreaming is a gift that you give yourself that nobody can ever take from you,” Juarez told the audience. “You can give it away. But, man, no one can ever take it from you.”