Every person, especially every child, should have a home. So nearly ten years ago, the community relations committee of Iowa Homeless Youth Centers (IHYC) was charged with creating a signature event, something to raise money for the cause and awareness of the issues related to youth homelessness.
It started with “Celebration of Hope — Pottery Painted by the Stars.” We mailed and received plates from Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, John Travolta, and others. Year one enjoyed moderate success — we raised nearly $10,000. After investing significantly more into the event for year two, we were discouraged after we raised just a fraction of our first year’s funds.
Deflated, our committee of volunteers and staff from IHYC batted around other ideas for our “signature” event. Maybe a black tie gala? No, it just didn’t fit the fight against youth homelessness. A 5K walk or run? No, the community was already saturated with similar events. We needed something aligned with our mission. We needed something that enlisted an army of fundraisers and advocates. We needed something that would stand out.
Then the idea came: What if we slept outside in the cold, got people to pledge money in support of our experience, and did it in remembrance of Reggie Kelsey, a homeless teen who died shortly after aging out of foster care? Yes, let’s sleep out!, we agreed.
Reggie’s Sleepout was born. The goal for year one: raise $10,000 by getting 100 people to sleep out (in November, in Iowa). The results: 600 people slept out and we raised $60,000! That was it. We had our signature event. Four news stations (in a community with just three local stations) broadcasted live, bringing light to an issue that wasn’t being acknowledged publically. In 2006, the first year of Reggie’s Sleepout, Iowa had one of the highest youth homelessness rates nationwide. Nearly 50 percent of Iowa’s homeless were under the age of 18. (By 2010, that figure had dropped to 37 percent, but it’s still too high.)
The event was fantastic, but what was to come couldn’t have been forecasted. Awareness for the issues-and IHYC-grew, and we amassed more volunteers. More media focused on youth homelessness, more legislation was introduced to support youth transitioning out of foster care, and more unsolicited donations poured in.
Year two saw growth. Nearly 1,000 people participated in the sleepout and after a generous matching grant from the Richard O. Jacobson Foundation, the event raised more than $138,000. Even NBC’s Today Show stopped by IHYC with Al Roker’s Lend a Hand in 2010.
Reggie’s Sleepout is IHYC’s signature event but it does more than raise money and awareness. It has given voice to unheard youth across Central Iowa who have been dying. This year — the 10th anniversary of Reggie Kelsey’s death — the event launched in his honor registered upwards of 1,500 people and raised more than $186,000. It’s been successful because it’s been embraced by one of the most generous communities in the county.
Thanks to the private and public sectors, the service providers, the participants, the donors, and the volunteers. And thank you for giving these young people a voice because every child should have a home.
Andrew Allen is the assistant director of Community Relations at the Principal Financial Group (a member of the Council on Foundations) based in Des Moines. He is on the board of Iowa Homeless Youth Centers and is a co-founder of Reggie’s Sleepout.