Devan Blackwell, of Mays Landing, spent only one night as a homeless person, but it was enough to convince him that he wanted to do more to help young people stay in school and do something with their lives.
A teacher at the Richmond Avenue School in Atlantic City, Blackwell participated in a sleepover at Covenant House in Atlantic City last month to raise awareness and money for the program and its work helping homeless youth.
Blackwell also runs a program called Be Unlimited and has organized youth engagement forums at Richard Stockton College as well as the Be Unlimited youth group at his school. Earlier this year he released a movie called The Spe@k Project which told of the lives and struggles of a group of urban youth, using local students as the actors.
About 15 of his students and their parents came to the vigil at Covenant House, where they got to hear residents' stories and see inside the facility. The students sponsored a coin drive for Covenant House that raised $250.
"I think it really helped them appreciate what they have," Blackwell said. "You spend time there, talk to the young people, and you look at your own life differently."
The event included a tour of the city locations where young people will to keep safe and warm. Back at Covenant House, Blackwell got a sleeping bag and a cardboard box to sleep in.
"One of the residents told me not to sleep on concrete because it gets too cold," he said. "He told me to find a patch of grass."
During the night there was constant noise on the street and at one point Blackwell woke up to sirens and police arriving at an incident nearby.
"It really makes you realize the stress and anxiety there must be for these kids," he said. "Your life is very different if you know you have a bed to sleep in."
Blackwell raised about $3,000 toward the $115,000 raised by the 27 participants in the sleepover.
Covenant House operates a crisis shelter in Atlantic City that houses homeless young men and women and sometimes their babies. The group helps young people finish school and find jobs and housing. South Jersey site director Brian Nelson said he would like to start an education fund to help the residents pay for the testing to get their high school diploma or tuition to attend college or work training programs.
More information about Covenant House is online at CovenantHouseNJ.org.
More information about Blackwell's Be Unlimited initiative is online at beunltd.com.
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