Nov 12, 2012 • By

Sleeping out to help the homeless

“Get up! There’s hail and lightning!”

I woke up at 5 a.m. Saturday morning to the sound of someone pounding on the cardboard box that my 12-year-old son and I were sleeping in – our temporary shelter during the General Mills and Cargill Homelessness and Hunger Sleep Out.

A fitting weather-related end to the event for us, given we already had strong winds a few hours before. As I climbed out of my sleeping bag, I groggily thought of the mythical postal service motto of “Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail …”

At least we didn’t have snow!

I’ll share more on how the event ended for us, in a bit.

But let me tell you first about the reason we were there.

While a sleep out can’t possibly simulate the real homelessness that too many people experience in cities of all sizes, around the world, it can be an effective way to teach a very real lesson.

This was the first year General Mills and Cargill combined their sleep out events. It allows employees of both companies and their families to sleep outside in a large box (or tent if they wish) to experience what it’s like when you don’t have a place to call home.

Volunteers set out the boxes throughout the day last Friday, getting them in place, as you see in this photo.

I arrived with my son, Jarrett, at about 5:30 p.m. and found a box to put our sleeping bags and pillows in. Having been in Cub Scouts and used to camping, he was looking forward to spending a night outside, even if the weather forecast called for temperatures in the 40s, and perhaps some rain overnight.

We then joined the other participants at the gathering area where sandwiches, snacks and hot chocolate were available.

A short program started at about 7 p.m., with representatives from both companies talking about homelessness and hunger in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

“We’re all interested in fighting this unacceptable problem that we have in our modern society,” said Kim Nelson, senior vice president of External Relations, and president of the General Mills Foundation. She pointed out that statistics show more than half the homeless in Minnesota are children or young adults.

Like me, Kim was participating in her first sleep out, along with her family.

I spoke with Cargill’s Bill Buckner, after he addressed the crowd. I asked him about the meaning of the sleep out and why Cargill participates.

“To me, the true impact is we’re helping those who are less fortunate. They’ve just fallen on a tough moment, so we’re helping them by either preventing them from being homeless, or if they are homeless, to get out of homelessness and get back on with their lives,” said Buckner.

At 8 p.m. we all formed into “families” of five people for a project meant to bring home the reality of what it’s like to live on a fixed income, and be able to afford housing, child care, health care – all the things that are part of our monthly budgets.

We went from table to table to learn how much our family needed to spend on various items, including our transportation and food costs. The group that my son and I were in struggled during the exercise. Our fictional costs put our family into a $600 deficit.

The project opened my son’s eyes, as he thought about just how much goes in to keeping a family from falling behind.

After that project, we had some more time around the firepits. One of the other participants was a high school classmate, who I hadn’t seen since graduation, now working for Cargill. After catching up with him a bit (and watching the live weather broadcast by KARE-TV, onsite at the sleep out) it was time to actually go to sleep.

The cardboard box was remarkably warm, so we were soon asleep.

Then the hail came, bouncing off the roof of our box like rocks. And that pounding of hands that I mentioned earlier, at about 5 a.m.

Turns out it was the son of Tess Hohman, one of my colleagues in Global Communications, telling us we had to leave. My son Jarrett and I quickly wiped the sleep from our eyes and crawled out into the rain.

Jarrett scooped up a few of the pea-sized hail pellets.

Thankfully, the cold rain stopped as we helped drag the big boxes to the curb, and flattened them, so the recycling crews could pick them up later in the day.

Despite the earlier than expected end to the sleep out, my son and I enjoyed participating in it. We’ll be back next year!

It truly was a memorable and important way to learn about, support and highlight the needs of the homeless and hungry in Minnesota.

General Mills is aiming to raise $50,000 from this year’s sleep out, with proceeds going to two local organizations that address homelessness and hunger needs: Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners (IOCP) and Second Harvest Heartland.

Editor’s note: You can watch video highlights from General Mills’ 2010 Sleep Out. And, learn more about our commitment to volunteerism at GeneralMills.com.