SENECA FALLS — Last September, members of the Seneca Falls United Methodist Church youth group had a sleepover — on the church lawn.
The group, made up of sixth- through 12th-graders, collected large cardboard boxes from BonaDent and the Seneca Falls school district, set them up outside and crawled in with sleeping bags to simulate a night of homelessness.
It was an activity that opened their eyes. And for eight months since that night, these youngsters have been focused on that issue and what they can do to combat it in their little corner of the world.
The youth group’s culminating activity, months in the planning, is a fundraising walk planned for June 2 along the Cayuga-Seneca Canal Trail (see details below). Proceeds will benefit Honor House, a transitional home on Fall Street for a female veteran in Seneca Falls that opened last year. The home is the result of a partnership between Habitat for Humanity of Seneca Falls, Generations Bank, the Seneca County Veterans Service Agency and Women March Seneca Falls.
Honor House was dedicated last May and its occupant, a female veteran, leases the house at a below market rate for up to two years, with a portion set aside in escrow to be used either to purchase a home or securing another leased one.
Youth Group Director Liz Rhinehart said she and Pastor Val White settled on the idea of homelessness as an issue to focus on, but the youth group members really adopted it as a project of their own.
When they staged their overnight, the youth group also held a food drive. The items they collected were added to the church’s food pantry — then each person was given a role-playing card and had to “shop” for their families and prepare a meal. One made a spaghetti dinner, another a Spam-ramen noodle dish.
“We kind of reflected how there were not many fruits and vegetables and if you were vegetarian or had dietary restrictions you were out of luck,” Rhinehart said.
White added: “They appreciated better food after that food experience.”
In October, the youth group headed to Waterloo for a Saturday work session on a house being renovated by Seneca County Habitat for Humanity, helping to backfill a foundation. They met the family who would eventually move into the home, Habitat board President Menzo Case and learned about Honor House.
“The kids felt drawn to Honor House,” Rhinehart said.
For Kyan Powers, 12, it was an eye opener.
“I never really thought vets could be homeless,” he said. “It should be addressed because not everybody knows there are female veterans who are homeless. … It’s not fair.”
Gavin Rhinehart agreed.
“We felt it was a disservice for people who served our country,” he said.
In November, the youth group planned and staged a pancake breakfast at the church on Veterans Day to raise money for Honor House. They also started making “upcycled” gift bags from comics to sell at holiday craft fairs — with different members assuming different roles, as some crafted and some sold. Rhinehart said she was impressed by the team effort.
By January, the group had raised $400 to present to Case for Honor House.
But they weren’t done.
Youth group member Gavin Rhinehart recalled how his family participated in the House of Concern’s Paddle for Poverty on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal last August. He thought maybe the youth group could stage a similar event to benefit Honor House.
Thus, “A Walk for Honor” was born.
The group applied for and was awarded a $425 grant from the United Methodist Church Youth Service Fund for the project, which will be used to purchase T-shirts for participants, prizes for the top three fund-raisers and to promote the walk. The group is ordering wristbands to highlight the fundraiser and already a Seneca Falls teacher is trying to get all sixth-graders to take part.
The youngsters hope to raise $1,000, with all proceeds benefiting Honor House. There is a minimum pledge of $10 for adults and $5 for children. For a guaranteed T-shirt, register as soon as possible, but there is no deadline to participate in the walk.
The youth group has already been out to the canal trail to scope out the route. Participants will start in Waterloo near Oak Island, off Huff Street. They have marked a one-mile out and return course and a two-mile out and return. The trail is wide, flat and well drained. Rhinehart said the group wanted to make the walk as family friendly as possible.
The youngsters also created all the paperwork — from information sheets and pledge forms to waivers (which can be downloaded from www.mysfumc.org).
“We really started from scratch,” Rhinehart said. “None of us have ever done this before.”
Macy Benz, 15, said she has witnessed people living on the streets in visits to New York City and San Francisco. She never realized people in her small hometown could also be experiencing homelessness or home insecurity, having to frequently move to new living quarters.
“I think it’s something we really need to address and hopefully this starts something bigger,” she said.