By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Kelly McDonald chose to be uncomfortable Friday night.

“It’s not really that much of a sacrifice compared to what some of the youths have done in their lives,” McDonald, a Montclair resident, said. She was among the approximately 10 community members who slept in the parking lot of the Montclair Women’s Club, hoping to bring awareness to the plight of young people facing homelessness throughout the state. McDonald has participated in similar events in other cities, including Newark and New York, for the past nine years.

Most participants brought sleeping bags and extra layers of clothes to combat the cold — which reached the lower 30s that night. All were given flat cardboard boxes to place underneath themselves to experience, just for a night, how a person without reliable access to shelter might sleep.

Sleep Out: Montclair Community Edition served as a fundraiser for Covenant House NJ, which at its seven locations provides sanctuary for people experiencing homelessness ages 18 to 21. Its Montclair Location is also home to Nancy’s House, providing services, skills development and housing for young people with mental health challenges.

The Junior League of Montclair-Newark, organizing the event, suggested participating students aim to raise $300 each, and adults raise $1,000. Some came to the Women’s Club in person; others participated virtually, joining an interactive person with Covenant House alumni and staff, as well as individuals participating in other Sleep Out events across the country. Remote participants went to their “backyards, garages, porches, terraces, and floors across New Jersey,” the Junior League said in its event description.

The group didn’t have an exact count for how many people took part remotely, but during online activities, several dozen were signed in. By Sunday, the event had raised more than $100,000, according to the Junior League’s online tracker

Denise Serbay, a resident from Bloomfield, had participated in the 2021 version of the event, sleeping outside on her deck. That event had been all-remote, because of the pandemic. At the Women’s Club parking lot Friday evening, she said the experience had been powerful. 

“As the night came in and it became quiet, I felt lonely. It was an eerie feeling,” Serbay said. 

Serbay said she has experience working with kids aging out of foster care, and some of them may face homelessness. She said events like the Sleep Out are important because they provide service for young people so they don’t end up homeless. 

The first Sleep Out: Montclair Community Edition was held in March 2020, an in-person event just weeks before pandemic-related shutdowns.

 “That night it was really cold and it was drizzling. It was so impactful because it’s a reminder of what these young people go through on a regular basis,” Heather Le Clair, president of the Junior League of Montclair-Newark, said. 

Friday night’s event began with a virtual program, with short videos of the Atlantic City Covenant House location.

Jim White, the executive director of Covenant House NJ, introduced Nicholas Wright, a Nancy’s Place resident who shared his story of dealing with mental health issues and trauma. He arrived at Nancy’s Pace at the age of 20, trying to find a place where he could be himself. 

“Before coming to Nancy’s Place, I didn’t know where I was going. I was in a low place and I didn’t know why. I found myself in and out of the hospital, diagnosed with depression and anxiety and struggling with suicidal ideation,” Wright said in the pre-recorded interview with White. “In Nancy’s Place I started to take care of my mental health and pursue the things that I loved.” 

While living in Nancy’s Place, Wright went to school to become a software engineer. He completed an internship with Johnson & Johnson which led him to a full-time position in the company. Wright said he is leaving Nancy’s Place to move into his own home in Camden.

Before heading out from inside the Women’s Club to the parking lot, participants did an activity. Each one of them was given three sticky notes, to write three items that meant a lot to them. 

One by one, participants threw away the notes, symbolizing what a young person experiences when leaving a home unexpectedly for a shelter or the streets – leaving behind their belongings as they do.

“I think it’s a pretty ignored cause,”  Laura Grusczynski, another of the participants, said. “I think a lot of people think that kids get all the resources and I think a lot of people turn a blind eye to the fact that there are really homeless kids in their schools, in their communities that are sleeping outside in the middle of the night outside and showing up to class the next day pretending that everything is OK.” 

She said she hopes the Sleep Out raises awareness – “and it’s nice to know that there is a place in your hometown if there are kids that need a place to go, they can find the help they need.”

Anyone interested can donate through the Covenant House NJ website, covenanthousenj.org/donate-to-chnj. Items, such as clothing, toiletries and chargers can also be purchased for the organization by going to Smile.Amazon.com and searching for Covenant House NJ.