Dec. 30, 2011 -- Where did you spend the holidays? With your family? By a tree? Warmed by a cozy fire?
What about in a cardboard box in frigid temperatures, with nothing more than a 40-year-old sleeping bag and a warm hat?
"It was like every other day," said Peter Larson, 17. "It just happened to be Christmas."
Larson isn't homeless. But thanks to Larson's work "Sleeping Out," there are hundreds of Americans who spent the holidays under a warm, safe roof.
When he was just 6, Larson's cub scout group, led by his father, Bruce Larson, spent one night sleeping inside tents in the cold Minnesota winter. They were inspired by Bob Fischer, who years earlier started sleeping outside every night of the holiday season to heighten awareness about homelessness and to raise money for the county's impoverished residents through the area's Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners.
Unlike the other scouts, however, Larson wasn't thankful to pack up his sleeping bag and take his shivering body inside. He wanted to do it again, and again, and again.
"I was only in first grade," Larson said, "but when Bob said that $500 could keep a family in their home for a month, I thought 'Hey! I can do that.'"
That year, Larson failed. He only raised $100. The next year, however, he trudged through the snow with a cardboard box, determined to raise awareness of homelessness and double the amount he raised.
Those hundreds of dollars grew to thousands. By the beginning of high school Larson's annual goal was $100,000 and he was sleeping outside 45 days a year to raise it, no matter what the elements.
"A few years ago it was minus 23 degrees outside," Larson, now a senior in high school, recalled. "The people at IOCP called me to say that I didn't have to stay out, but homeless families wouldn't have a place to go, would they? Yeah, it was really, really cold, but I made a commitment and if I didn't stay out, IOCP wouldn't have the help and a family might not have a home."
Jill Kohler of IOCP estimates that Larson's work has touched over 1,000 families in Hennepin County, Minn.
"Now, it takes $672 a month to keep a family in their home," Kohler said, "and it would take over $3,000 a month and a lot of turmoil to have them out and in a homeless shelter. But, it isn't just about housing. It's about transportation to work, education, and employment services. You have to take a more holistic view to have a long-term impact. And Peter has touched families in all those ways."
Makida Abdulahi of Minnesota knows that the impact is real. An immigrant from Ethiopia and the mother to several young children, Abdulahi feared that her American dream would be shattered when the father of her children left, a daughter developed severe asthma requiring frequent hospitalizations, and she lost her job.
Abdulahi turned to IOCP and was moved into a new, stable home, where mold did not make her children sick, and was given GED and career training to work in phlebotomy.
Because of IOCP's desire to protect the anonymity of those it serves, Larson did not meet anyone he helped until several years ago.
Minnesota Teen Sleeps Out in Frigid Weather to Help Homeless
"Peter lives in the middle of our service area," Kohler said. "He's helping families that he interacts with every day. Neighbors. A few years ago we took him to meet one of the families that he helped. He walked into a home, very ethnic, very different from his, but one where the family was safe and provided for because of him, where there were children coloring at the table."
That chance to meet and realize the impact that one individual can have on his community had a much greater impact.
"It's not like a soup kitchen," Larson said, "You don't get to see people and meet them and talk to them, for their own sake. To finally get to meet them, and to see other kids, it was just amazing."
The family was Abdulahi's, and they were equally amazed.
Abdulahi was shocked and touched when she realized that it was a boy who saved her and her children's chances at happiness.
"I don't know how to explain what he did," she said. "He was just a little boy and it surprised me so much. My God, it's really wonderful. We have a home where my children are safe and healthy and because of Peter I don't have to worry about them. He took a burden off my shoulders, and for my children took them out of a very, very stressful situation and showed them a beautiful world. They're inspired and they talk about Peter all the time, how they want to be good and help like him."
While they may not raise thousands of dollars, the executive director of IOCP, LaDonna Hoy, said that there are at least a thousand people like Larson, out to Sleep Out and make a difference.
"Peter has become our figurehead," Hoy said. "He's provided the energy and the enthusiasm, but each year we have around 1,000 people sleep out, and since Peter some of those have been as young as 3. But most of those are for one night and more than a thousand dollars raised is very, very rare."
Oddly enough, even though his "Sleeping Out" started from being a Cub Scout, Larson isn't technically the model boy scout one would predict.
"He didn't stay with that," his mother Joni said. "He's just not the kind of kid who is motivated by merit badges or grades or awards. But if he deems something to be important, he goes at it with his entire heart…I've seen him with ice on his body and snow on his box…I wouldn't stop him. You have to step back and let your child figure out what touches them, and with Peter it comes from the heart, not because he's supposed to."
This year is Larson's last sleeping out before he leaves for college in California. So far, he has raised over $120,000 this year, which will impact at least 60 families. He will be sleeping out until Dec. 31 and you can donate here.
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