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Solidarity in the cardboard city

While most of Wairarapa slept in relative comfort, a group of Masterton students spent a night hunkering down in a ramshackle “cardboard city”, and clocking up several thousand kilometres on foot – in solidarity with those less fortunate than themselves.

Last month, Chanel College took part in the Caritas Challenge: an annual event for schools and youth groups to demonstrate fellowship with people in the midst of poverty or injustice, and raise funds to support impoverished communities.

As part of the Caritas Challenge, spearheaded by Catholic social justice organisation Caritas Aotearoa, young people participate in activities which raise awareness of social inequalities – and, in the process, gain understanding of what it means to live in poverty.

Ninety-four Chanel College students took part in this year’s event, held from October 28 to 29: Raising awareness of homelessness by spending 24 hours in the school’s courtyard, sheltering inside makeshift dwellings fashioned from cardboard boxes.

The students also incorporated a 24-hour physical challenge – teaming up to walk laps around the school field, pausing only briefly to snooze inside their cardboard houses.

Chanel has so far raised over $3000, which will be donated to Caritas Aotearoa’s community development programmes in the Pacific, Asia, and Latin America.

Deputy principal Chris Senior said the event was an enlightening experience for the students, who took all the accompanying difficulties– sore feet, lack of sleep, and late-night rainfall drenching their accommodation – in their stride.

“Things like this give young people the opportunity to think beyond themselves and outside of their own box – and do something meaningful to help others.

“It’s part of our special character as a Catholic school – to serve the community. If we can inspire young people to help others in need, the world would be a
better place.

“It’s an experience they’ll remember the rest of their lives.”

Senior said one of the hardest parts of the experience for the students was making their cardboard city sturdy and spacious enough to comfortably house close to 100 people.

Some, however, emerged as “master builders”, with one team constructing a building with a “proper A-frame roof” and several smaller internal rooms.

“We pretty much made it all up on the spot – it was a bit of trial and error,” Year 13 student Takumi McKelvey said.

The A-frame structure came in handy during a brief rain shower at 9pm – allowing for water run-off, while those structures with flat roofs didn’t stand up as well to the elements.

“Some of the students asked me, when it started raining, if they could go into the hall. I told them homeless people don’t get that choice,” Senior said.

“So, they picked up their houses and moved where they could find shelter – which is what you’d have to in the real world.

“It was a good life lesson for them.”

The 24-hour relay, the students said, was “fun but tiring” – unsurprising as, together, they had managed to walk close to 8000km.

“Keeping moving definitely made me feel less tired. My knees felt shattered the next day though!” Takumi said.

“Having a yarn with friends and teachers made the time go faster.”

Also providing company were members of the public, who stopped by to give a donation and join in for a few laps – some with their dogs in tow.

Year 10 student Emma Jackson said “the most brutal part” was staying awake for 24 hours – though they were able to stop to doze during the relay, lying “on the hard ground and being crammed in together” wasn’t conducive to a good night’s rest.

“It gave them a taste of what [sleeping rough] would be like. If you’re out in the cold, disturbed by traffic noises, and looking out for dangers, you’re not going to get much sleep,” Senior said.

“It has given us more understanding of what some people have to go through,” Emma added.

“It was absolutely eye-opening.”

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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