Students Spend the Night in a Cardboard City

Date Posted: 7/9/2020

By Lindsay Peyton
Every year, students from Humble ISD trade in the comforts of home to spend the night outside in a cardboard shelter as part of the Cardboard City project. The event raises awareness about homelessness and funds for two important area outreach organizations, Family Promise of Lake Houston and Humble Area Assistance Ministries (HAAM). When COVID-19 halted plans for the annual fundraiser, Strawbridge UMC got creative and found a way for the ministry to continue.  
Usually the Cardboard City is erected in the football field at Humble ISD. Teens sign up and get sponsors, the Rev. Eric Pugh, minister of youth, young adults and families at Strawbridge UMC, explained
“They get cardboard and build a structure,” he said. ‘They have a sack dinner. They learn about limited food access, limited sleep and being outside at night.”
It’s exactly the type of event dear to the heart of Strawbridge UMC. Pugh and Kristen Tropeano, student and family ministries coordinator, have been developing Immersive Service Learning Experience at the church, usually focused on social justice, battling racism and understanding American Methodism.
“We try to expose students to new places and thoughts,” Pugh said. “Experience is often the best way to learn – not just for youth but adults as well.”
The church has sponsored the Cardboard City in the past and several member families take part in the event. With the pandemic, stay at home orders meant that the Cardboard City was canceled. 
“It was like a bunch of other things that got taken off the calendar,” Pugh said. “We can’t get together, and this is an event that has to be done together.”
The church had other student outreach activities and summer mission trips on the books that were also threatened by the lockdown.
Pugh and Tropeano looked to their student leadership team for guidance. “We started doing virtual meetings right away to think about how we can still serve,” Pugh said. “And what would service even look like?”
Pugh also contacted Family Promise of Lake Houston and HAAM to see how they would be impacted by not having the Cardboard City fundraiser. Both explained that the loss would be felt – but they were looking for other innovative ways to keep going.
“They just had to pivot,” Pugh said. “They were struggling just to find out how to do day-to-day ministry.”
Then, Strawbridge received a grant from the Texas Methodist Foundation. They applied during the normal grant cycle but received the funding in April. “They encouraged us to get creative – and think outside the box,” Pugh said.
And that’s how Strawbridge came up with an idea to literally get rid of the box. What if they didn’t need the cardboard for the Cardboard City experience? What if there were a way to continue learning about homelessness from home?
The church hosted a conference call with Family Promise, HAAM and Humble ISD. They proposed creating a virtual experience, where families could use whatever materials they had on hand to build a fort and computer-guides could tie in statistics on homelessness and resources in the community.
The participating organizations all jumped on board to create “A Fort Night for Family Promise and HAAM,” and Tropeano went to work spreading the word. “We did virtual flyers, social media posts, Instagram stories, Facebook stories,” Tropeano said. “We littered the Internet with it.”
Joining the virtual event was free, but donations to Family Promise and HAAM were encouraged. Strawbridge offered to use $3,000 from its TMF grant as matching funds.
Students throughout the community got involved, raising $3,400. With the matching amount, Family Promise and HAAM each received $3,200 from the virtual event.
Each participant gathered three to five items to build a simple fort, where they would spend the night. They posted photos of their creations and shared their experiences of what it was like to spend the night without their usual beds and routines.
There were additional challenges available to participants – like limiting the number of items to make a fort, not eating food after dinner, spending the night without a pillow or blanket, refraining from electronic devices, sleeping outside or turning the air conditioner off inside.
Families were also provided with a list of questions to discuss, like what causes homelessness and how many people are affected. “It was a tool to connect people and raise awareness,” Pugh said.
A Fort Night for Family Promise and HAAM also inspired Strawbridge to create more virtual experiences in the future. For instance, an experiential learning trip could also have a digital component to allow students who could not attend an opportunity to still join. A virtual experience would also allow students who attended to continue the journey digitally once they returned.  
Tropeano said that Strawbridge is also looking for creative ways to continue its summer missions. Instead of traveling somewhere else for four or five days, the church is hosting a series of weekends of service.
“Mission work doesn’t have to look the way it usually does,” she said. “There are a million different things to do to help your neighbors – and you don’t always have to even leave your house. There isn’t one right way to be a servant.”
Teams of family members can still volunteer together – socially distanced and wearing masks and gloves, Tropeano said. “Our work teams may look a little different, but they will still be just as effective,” she said.
Pugh credits the student leadership team at church for pushing forward these innovative solutions. “Kristen and I believe in the power students have to lead when they have the opportunity to really be heard,” he said. “We just help our students bring their visions to life.”
The student ministry, he explained, is truly led by students. “And they are doing a great job,” he said.
Because students help plan the events, they understand exactly what they need, time constraints and how to make it all happen.
“We ask students what’s on their hearts and then invite them to listen to the community deeply about what’s going on,” Pugh said. “They come back pretty quickly with ideas. They are really good at recognizing what needs are. They have the answer – they just need us to encourage them.”
Strawbridge recently hosted student fellowship in the parking lot. Speakers held iPads for youth who could only attend via Zoom. Young adult ministry was able to continue – simply at a proper distance.
In addition, the church recently created a parade for high school graduates. The congregation united and drove through the community to celebrate seniors, allowing church members a way to join in a whole new way and possibly start a new tradition.
“This pandemic has taught us that we just need to think about everything more,” Pugh said. “Everything doesn’t have to be done the way it was in the past.”