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Execs sleep outside to raise money for homeless kids

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

As senior vice president–government affairs for Delta Air Lines, Andrea Fischer Newman wouldn't normally spend an unusually cold November night bundled in a sleeping bag outdoors.

But the Ann Arbor resident as well as more than 40 executives and other professionals vowed to raise money for the nonprofit Covenant House Michigan by participating Thursday night in the first local Sleep Out: Executive Edition to support its programs aiding area homeless youths.

So, she prepared to don boots and multiple layers of clothing to rest on cardboard boxes for about seven hours through early Friday in temperatures forecast to drop into the teens — just like many others without a home might be forced to.

"I can't think of a better way to get a point across to have people understand what these children are going through," Fischer Newman said. While the cold was a concern, she said, "the more I think about how to stay warm, I think about these children who don't have anywhere to go and don't have the resources I have to stay warm overnight. I'm not sure I can express appropriately how moving this is."

That sentiment swayed the group of attorneys, banking executives, public relations leaders, heads of auto dealers and other business representatives to join the cause.

Before the Sleep Out, some 200 people gathered at the Covenant House Michigan's 17th annual candlelight vigil.

"If every church, every synagogue, every temple would take one child, we would eradicate homelessness immediately," said Rev. Jim Holley of Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit.

That message heartened Julie Dzanbazoff, who joined a large group from St. Vincent Pallotti Parish in Wyandotte donating boxes with clothing, toiletries and other items for CHM.

"We're trying to do our one small part" in helping, she said.

The Sleep Out participants then circled around a bell tower outside, lighting candles and singing "Amazing Grace" atop snow-covered grass.

In the crowd was Mike Ritchie, president of Comerica Bank-Michigan Market, who was preparing to ward off the chill with as many layers as possible.

"I'm not sure you can really stay warm in this kind of weather," he said, adding he wanted to help Covenant House Michigan's work offering "a place of sanctuary, a place of safety."

Wealth adviser Dave Senatore of Morgan Stanley already had his long underwear on while scouting out his accommodations for the night. He hoped to brave the elements without the warming center to show solidarity with homeless youth.

"If these kids can do it for weeks, I can do it for one night," he said.

The Sleep Out was among those in 15 cities in North America that have facilities associated with Covenant House, a charity group founded in 1972 to help homeless kids escape the streets. The goal was to generate money more than $150,000 for efforts at CHM, which offers food, shelter, counseling, educational/vocational programs and other aid to homeless, runaway and at-risk youth.

CHM serves about 8,000 young people and their families each year, executive director Gerry Piro said. The more than $197,000 that Sleep Out participants raised will be a significant boost to our efforts," he said.

Citing state and federal data, Piro estimated more than 5,000 youths in Metro Detroit wander the streets on any given night seeking shelter and necessities.

Among them was Steven Brown, 21, who reached Covenant House Michigan last year. He said he had spent about nine months homeless in Macomb County after a dispute with relatives.

Staying in abandoned buildings and even tree houses during the winter, Brown said he was often haunted by a thought: "I might not wake up. … I could freeze to death."

The sobering reality of homelessness is reflected in the Sleep Out at the CHM grounds near Interstate 96. Participants were given coats that transform into sleeping bags from the Empowerment Plan nonprofit and cardboard boxes to lay on the pavement at the basketball court.

There's a "warming center" in a nearby chapel if the execs need a break, Piro said. Still, the expectation is that they will stay from 11 p.m. through 6:30 a.m. Friday, he said.

Endurance is key for Rich Thompson, head of MST Steel Corp., an automotive supplier.

"Fortunately I'm a hunter, so I have lots of warm clothes and I plan on bringing them all," he said. "I think part of what makes it an interesting event is at least for one night you get to experience what these homeless kids experience."

Also layering up was Sam Slaughter, owner of Sellers Auto Group and vice president at the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which raised about $73,000 for the Sleep Out and helped present it.

"The Sleep Out provides me and other business people a chance to come together and do more than write a check — but stand up (or, in this case, lie down) to bring attention to a serious issue," he said.