By Steven Cooper and Hannah Cooper.
My name is Hannah and I'm in the sixth grade. I attend a Unitarian Universalist church in Naperville, Illinois. This past year our church joined many other UU congregations in the Chicago area on a project called No More Turning Away.
The purpose of this project was to lead churches to help people who are homeless or near homeless. Many churches throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri also participated in this project.
Each church did work in their own neighborhood to help people. Last Halloween my brother and I trick-or-treated for the food pantry in our town. We pulled a wagon behind us and filled it with canned food and grocery items from our neighbors rather than collecting candy for ourselves (although a lot of our neighbors gave us candy anyway).
One night a month our church was assigned to work at a homeless shelter. Many families from our congregation would bring meals, set up beds, and oversee the activities for the evening. My job was to help serve dinner to our guests. It was strange at first because I knew that they were homeless but they looked just like everybody else. Sometimes there was a mother with two kids who would visit. I tried to be friends with the girl but she was too shy.
At Christmas-time our church put up two Christmas trees in our social hall. One tree was not decorated at all. People were supposed to bring in mittens, hats, and scarves and put them on the tree to decorate it. Just before Christmas, we packed up all the items and took them to a pantry where people who needed them could get them for free.
The second Christmas tree was decorated with gift tags. Each tag was for a child we could buy a gift for, and gave the person's age, whether they were a boy or girl, and what they wanted for Christmas. My dad helped me pick two tags, and then we went and bought those gifts and placed them under the tree. Later, all the gifts were distributed to the children's families so they would have them for Christmas morning. My dad told me that most of these participants would not have had Christmas gifts if it wasn't for us.
Throughout the year, we saw movies about homeless people. We talked about how people become homeless and what possible ways we can help them. We also did a simulation where we pretended we were going to be homeless. We had to figure what personal items we would take with us and it had to all fit in a backpack.
In March, all the UU congregations participating in No More Turning Away had an event to help the homeless at the same time, and we were in newspapers and on the TV news. For this event kids and adults asked people to sponsor them by pledging money that would go to a homeless shelter or food pantry near their church. Then on a Saturday night, late in March, all the adults and kids slept outside their churches in cardboard boxes. We made a Cardboard City, just like some homeless people do. It was a chance to really feel what it was like to be homeless. I later found out that a lot of my UU friends from other churches were outside in boxes at the same time I was. We were lucky—the weather for us wasn't too bad for March, but for my friends in Wisconsin the weather wasn't as nice.
It was neat to think that over 300 UUs across the Midwest were doing the same thing at the same time that I was to help the homeless. Over $10,000 was collected and distributed to help homeless people in each community. I felt like our church was really doing something to help people and I can't wait to do it again next year.