How the Sleep Out Changed Me

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A cardboard shelter made by the youth at Covenant House for the 2017 Sleep Out.

“I remember they really drilled it into me that the Sleep Out wasn’t about pretending to be homeless…”

The following is an interview with Jessica Leystra, 2017 Young Professional Sleep Out Champion.

Q: What’s your history with the Sleep Out?

A: Well, I actually used to work at Covenant House Alaska, which is how I learned about the Young Professional Sleep Out. I also learned that being part of it by participating at least once is kind of a rite of passage for the staff at Covey. 2017 was my year! It was my first and only sleep out. The other sleepers and I raised about $60,000 total – there were maybe 20-25 of us – and that felt really good, knowing we were able to give that back to kids that needed it the most.

Q: When you agreed to do the Sleep Out, were you excited?

A: HA! Honestly? No! Who would be excited about sleeping outside for 8 hours in the winter? I was NERVOUS. Thankfully, though, there was next to no snow on the ground when I slept out. But seriously, I was terrified, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be too cold? Did I bring enough layers? Would I be the only one that couldn’t handle it? Is it possible to bring TOO much gear? But now, looking back, I was overthinking it and letting myself get carried away with worries. Even though it was still cold, wet, and uncomfortable, I know it’s not even CLOSE to how hard most of the kids in Alaska have it when they aren’t at Covey.

Q: What was your biggest takeaway?

A: My biggest takeaway…before I started working at Covey, I knew very little about youth homelessness and how prevalent it was in Alaska. When I familiarized myself with Covey’s mission, programs, and services, I felt like an expert, and MAN was I wrong!! The Sleep Out offers the experience of what it’s like to be out on the streets surrounded by strangers late at night with no place to go. When you get a chance to sit down across the table from a kid at CHA, you see a whole different perspective that most people haven’t seen. So, realizing that it’s easy to convince yourself that you fully grasp the effects homelessness can have on a young person and that you know all the reasons why they end up homeless has to be the biggest takeaway. Talking to real people, face-to-face, opened my eyes to so much more.

Staff, youth, and Sleep Out Champions participate in small group discussions.

Q: What was it like learning about the lives of kids living at Covenant House?

A: It was difficult to watch and hear them sharing such personal truths that many wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with people they hardly know. I ate lunch with some of the kids that participated in the Sleep Out in the weeks leading up to it and thought I understood their struggles, but I had no idea. I heard Dominick and Rebecca’s stories in our small group session:

Dominick told me about his upbringing—about how his father would abuse his mother in front of him and his siblings, how he started experimenting with his dad’s drugs that were left around the house, how he eventually stopped coming home because the abuse there was too much to handle, how he drifted from one friend’s couch to the next, and how, eventually, he ended up in a group camp. Then Covey.

Rebecca came to Anchorage with the promise of a place to stay, but when she arrived, she couldn’t get in contact with her “friend” and ended up on the streets with no money, friends, or family. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but she eventually wound up being trafficked for sex. Then Covey.

After hearing these stories, youth homelessness was no longer just numbers on a page, it was people I knew.

Jessica Leystra, 2017 Young Professional Sleep Out Champion

Q: What was your favorite part of the Sleep Out?

A: Waking up with aching bones and muscles from sleeping on the hard, cold concrete wasn’t my favorite (that part truly sucked), but it was the perspective it gave me that really was valuable. For me, it had only been one night—not seven, or a month, or an undetermined amount of time that I couldn’t predict. I knew that the very next night, I would be jumping into my fluffy warm bed. Sitting around with the other sleepers the next morning, you could see the relief in their eyes when morning came. The relief in knowing that it was over for them. But we all knew it wasn’t over for those who do it night after night with no other options.

Q: Would you do it again?

A: Oh yeah! I wanted to do it this year, but I have a different event I’m planning around the same time. I’m committing to sleeping out in 2020, though! In 2017, I remember they really drilled it into me that the Sleep Out wasn’t about pretending to be homeless, that it was more symbolic—we were sleeping outside in their place, as a display of solidarity with them to say “we see you, we know your pain, we are here for you.” And that action, to me, is really important to continue, support, and honor.

To support this year’s Young Professional Sleep Out, please donate. Your impact is immeasurable.

To Pick. Click. Give a kid a home. please consider designating Covenant House Alaska when you file for your PFD. Your donation will be applied to support the Sleep Out!

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