Post by Sylvia Hackett, Vice President of Human Resources and the Rex Healthcare Foundation at Rex Healthcare. She serves on the Executive Committee of the Greater Triangle United Way Board and volunteers with the Wake Boys and Girls Club. She is also a board member of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
We’ve all heard the saying, “What happens in the dark, comes to the light.” A recent experience has given new meaning to this statement for me. I participated in what the United Way of the Greater Triangle refers to as an “uncommon event,” where 25 executives from across the Triangle experience, for only one night, what more than 2,000 people in our community experience nightly: homelessness and hunger. The annual CEO Sleep Out is designed to raise awareness by making the invisible issues visible.
It was the evening of September 11, 2014, when we gathered on the lawn in front of the DPAC in downtown Durham. Several of the executives had participated before given this was the third year of the event. They seemed prepared and not worried about the evening ahead. The weather forecast called for rain most of the night and heavy at times. I wasn’t concerned about anything specific (except spiders) and I had already resolved that I would make it through the evening.
The United Way staff organized a very engaging evening of presentations and roundtable discussions with local non-profits on the social impacts of childhood hunger and poverty. These conversations revealed statistics that further highlighted the issues and the need for long-term solutions. The agenda also included presentations from finalists in the United Way Social Innovation Challenge.
The time went by quickly, and the program portion of the evening was over. Also, I should mention that no food was served. If we didn’t eat before we arrived at 6:30 pm, we had to wait until morning. It was just about midnight when we got in line to collect our provisions for the evening.
To participate in the Sleep Out, each executive had to raise money to support the cause. For starters, each of us received a flat piece of cardboard for the ground. If we raised $250, we received a pillow; $500 qualified us for a blanket, $750 earned us a box for shelter, and $1,000 allowed us to receive a sleeping bag. With the support of many people at Rex, as well as family and friends, I raised $1,260 which earned me all of these essentials. As we settled in for the night, I set up my box on the paved parking lot instead of the grass. I thought I could best avoid spiders out there…. and I did! Also, the rain never came—we were very lucky.
Once everyone had quieted and settled in, the night became very real for me. Even though I lay there feeling quite vulnerable, I expected the city would quiet down, and people would go where people go when it gets dark. Instead, I learned that while we only simulated homelessness, those who were truly homeless were nearby. There was an unexpected stream of foot traffic in the area, and countless other ramblings reverberated throughout the night. I decided to close the opening to the box to alleviate some slight anxiety and attempt to get some sleep. My thought was I can’t worry about what I can’t see. Eventually, I think I may have slept sporadically for 1-2 hours.
When daylight came, the city buses were rolling again and the people around us returned to appearing deliberate in their comings and goings. At first, I had an overwhelming feeling of relief–I had survived the night! And then I had a revelation: I had closed my box to block out what I didn’t want to see. I go about my life busy doing what I do, and that makes it easy to tune things out. This experience was a gift—a unique opportunity to help shine a spotlight on the issues of homelessness, poverty and hunger. The hope is that we as a community can find real solutions to this problem.