By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Year after year, no matter how cold the temperatures, they’re there — one way or another.
The 26th annual Jerry Starr Ken-Ton Schools Sleep-out took place from 8 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. today at Hoover Middle School in the Town of Tonawanda. The event, sponsored by the group Educators Totally Committed, brings together a mix of adults and students to camp out in the school’s parking lot near the Sheridan Drive pedestrian overpass, gathering donations and raising awareness for the poor and homeless in Western New York.
ETC member Stephen Ash, a retired math teacher, said Friday that he was getting 55 refrigerator boxes from Sears for the group, providing a spot where campers could shelter from the cold. The temperature in the Town of Tonawanda was predicted to dip to 14 degrees (with a -1 wind chill) overnight.
“The temperatures will be chilly, but we’ll be there,” he said. “I’d rather have 5 inches of snow and 35 degrees than 2 inches of snow and 16 degrees ... but the homeless don’t get a choice and neither do we. That may put a dent in our numbers, but we’ll be out there.”
Ash hoped for 30 people for the sleep-out, about 15 kids and adults. He was planning to encourage people to take breaks in the school’s cafeteria, if necessary, for protection against the elements.
During a portion of the evening, the group collected donations of cash, food, clothes, personal care items and small furniture for a number of agencies, including New Calvary Convenant Baptist Church in the Town of Tonawanda and Little Portion Friary, The Response to Love Center, Gospel Expansion Foundation, South Buffalo Community Table and Community Action Information Center in Buffalo.
Ash said that St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy in Buffalo also picked up 50 to 80 bags of gently used clothes donated for those who need them.
“Warm clothes are always needed in Buffalo this time of year,” he said. “It’s sad when you hear ‘I need a blanket because I’m sleeping under a bridge on Michigan Street’ ... and we get them one. There’s no way I can even begin to comprehend staying outside on nights like this, with no way to get shelter.”
The sleep-outs were started in 1988 by Ken-Ton teacher Jerry Starr, for whom the event is now named. (There is also an event in Clarence.) Over the years, many of the same faces have gathered around the sleep-out campfire ... and some of those faces have grown up doing so.
Mike Kollmar, a Ken-Ton school district employee, has taken part in the event every year. For the last eight years or so, his son Blake has accompanied him.
“When you’re lucky and you’ve got heat and food and some people don’t ... no one in this country should not have food and a warm place,” he said. “We’re just trying to raise awareness.”
Deborah Finamore originally started sleeping out as part of the event 22 years ago, when she was a part-time nurse for the Ken-Ton School District, and brought her children, ages 4 and 7 at the time, with her. Then, about 10 years ago as part of a social justice group at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Kenmore, she recruited the church and school to help.
“We have been doing it ever since,” she said. “It just kept going. I’m happy our church got on board.”
While only two people from St. John, including Finamore, slept out this year, it’s been a team effort with many students involved in raising money for the campaign, Finamore said.
“People are regulars,” she said. “I am thrilled to be part of it; it just is a wonderful thing. I’m very glad I’ve been part of it.”
Ash also has plans for the future, including school satellite sleep-out stations and, ultimately, a world day of school sharing. He’s hoping to get Gov. Andrew Cuomo to permanently proclaim the first Friday in February as such an event, then expand it to the United States and even the world.
“We’re hoping for it,” he said. “If we’re anything, we’re steadfast.
“There’s no limit on the number of good things responsible adults can offer kids to do. This isn’t a cure all for everything, but it’s a positive activity kids can get involved in.”
For more information on the event, call 694-4492.Contact reporter Jill Keppeler at 693-1000, ext. 4313.