BOULDER - For one night every year, Fairview High School Principal Don Stensrud, his administrative team and representatives from other area high schools give up their warm beds to experience what some of their students, unfortunately, brave nightly.
This year the temperature was in the low 20s in Downtown Boulder as the team bedded down on the grounds of First United Methodist Church during the 7th Annual Sleep Out for Homeless Youth, a fundraiser for Attention Homes.
“Every year, I’m like, ‘oh, it’s cold, I want to be inside,’ but then every year I’m so glad I did it,” said Fairview Assistant Principal Sarah DiGiacomo. “[The next morning] You’re a mess and it is so hard to function.”
“I’ll tell you, tomorrow, when we’re at work, we will be zombies,” added Fairview Assistant Principal Rose Lupinacci. “It really gives you that reality that [our homeless students] go to school like that.”
“It shows the resilience and the grit they have,” Stensrud said. “This is nothing. A few years ago it was -8 degrees. That was the year I slept the worst. I kept thinking of that book I read in high school, To Build a Fire by Jack London, where the guy starts falling asleep before he freezes to death.”
In affluent Boulder County, it may be hard for some to believe that 260 Boulder Valley School District students are classified as homeless thus far this year. Last year the number reached nearly 600 students.
“We’ve had kids staying in cars, kids who are couchsurfing,” explained Stensrud.
At Fairview they’ve supported a range of homeless students from a 16-year-old boy who was completely illiterate because his parents didn’t believe in education to a brilliant high school senior and IB Diploma program student who got kicked out of her parents’ house after coming out of the closet as a lesbian.
“Her mom and dad didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They said, ‘you can’t stay here anymore.’ She spent her senior year at Chase House [a group home for youth placed by a county Child Welfare program]. She is now at Dartmouth,” Stensrud said.
Administrators say they are amazed by the homeless students they meet who endure the conditions and still come to school.
“Math doesn’t mean a whole lot, when you are wondering where you’re next meal is, or you’re sleeping outside and you are worried that someone might beat you up or how cold it is going to be,” Stensrud said.
That was the reality that Gabbie Zubia faced as a young adult when she moved to Boulder in the fall of 2012. She had moved here from Littleton after leaving home shortly after graduation and couldn’t make ends meet.
“All I knew was the bridge I slept under and the places I would go eat early in the morning,” Zubia said.”
“I never want to go back to that dark place. It was terrible,” Zubia continued. “I slept in a car, in the middle of the winter, for two weeks. I got burns on my fingers and on my body from the cold. I had four blankets, but it was below zero. It is scary. It is hard to keep ahold of hope sometimes. All you can wish is that you would wake up the next day.”
She eventually was referred by a friend to a homeless shelter in Boulder, which thankfully put her on a new path.
“There definitely is help,” Zubia said.
She appreciates the attention the Sleep Out event is giving to teen homelessness and hopes that it will help other young women like her know that there are resources available.
Today, she is living in an an apartment with her 4-year-old daughter, thankful for the support that gave her a new beginning.
“It has taken me years. I went through hell and back,” Zubia said. “I try to take every opportunity I can to help others.”
Giving back to those who help homeless students
This is the seventh year Principal Stensrud has participated in the Sleep Out event.
“I didn’t know anything about Attention Homes, but I came that first year. 40 of us did it,” Stensrud remembered. “It was incredibly life changing, so I came back and said, ‘we are all doing it.’ We’ve done it every year since.”
“It has made us more aware,” Stensrud added. “Now our teachers will say, 'that kid has been wearing the same clothes for three days. What’s going on?'”
The Fairview team credits Attention Homes with helping dozens of Boulder students -- including those mentioned earlier -- keeping the IB student off the street so she could reach her dreams and providing stability to the student who had never attended school before coming to Fairview.
“They were so good with him. They probably saved his life. I think about him all the time,” Stensrud said. “They offer a helping hand when these kids need it. They are always there.”
Fairview greatly appreciates the partnership they have with Attention Homes and it shows in their support of the Sleep Out fundraiser.
“In the six years we’ve done it, we’ve never failed to raise less than $10,000,” Stensrud said proudly.
This year is no different. As of Tuesday, November 13, the Fairview team had raised $13,237. It, however, is still possible to push that amount higher, by visiting: https://app.mobilecause.com/vf/SLEEPER/team/FairviewHigh
Resources for homeless students
If you know of a homeless BVSD student, there are resources to support them under McKinney- Vento Act.
Additionally, you can learn more about Attention Homes, including Chase House, The Source and the 40-unit Attention Homes Apartment project, which is currently under construction, on their website at www.attentionhomes.org