NEW PORT RICHEY — It’s that time of year when folks are heading to the grocery store for Thanksgiving turkeys and toy stores for Christmas deals but in the holiday rush, many forget that even basic meals are a luxury for some people in the community.
To help combat the problem of hungry Pasco County families and children, pre-teens and teenagers on the New Port Richey Recreation and Aquatic Center’s Youth Advisory Board started a project to raise awareness of homelessness and collect canned food for the less fortunate. They’re now gearing up for their third annual “Cardboard Campout.”
On Nov. 15, 12 YAB members will camp out overnight in front of the recreation center with nothing to keep them warm but cardboard box huts and a blanket or two. Elaine Smith, director of Parks & Recreation and advisor for the group, discourages the use of cellphones and other mobile devices to authenticate the experience for the youth.
“The benefit to the kids was immediate from the very first year,” Smith said. “They have learned what a hardship it would be to not have a home, to not have a place to shower and a place to clean your clothes”
“The other lesson is that it’s the right thing to do to volunteer and give back to your community. It creates that source of pride, that they are giving direct benefit to their community with the food they raise.”
The young people spend the weeks leading up to the campout collecting canned food donations at a bin at the rec center. They also bring their own contributions from home the day of the event.
“We haven’t collected a lot of canned food so far so that’s really concerning me,” Smith said.
The group will be at Orange Lake in downtown New Port Richey from 10 a.m. until noon this Saturday to collect donations during Pasco EcoFest, the county’s premiere sustainability event.
In 2011, the first year of the campout, canned food donations went to Richey Elementary School, where 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Last year, the youths teamed up with the Well Worship Center in New Port Richey to distribute more than 200 pounds of food to needy families for Thanksgiving. The partnership will continue this year.
“I like giving back to my community and I thought it was a good thing to give back, said 12-year-old Alex Caravona, who has participated in the campout since the beginning.
Next Friday night, the teens will build temporary homes with duct tape and cardboard boxes and sleep in them, rain or shine. Each will bring a can of food to be mixed into one pot over the campfire and eaten as a “hobo stew.” Then they’ll listen to New Port Richey Police Chief Kim Bogart talk about challenges he faced growing up less fortunate.
Earlier this year, the YAB received the President’s Gold Level Volunteer Service Award by city council members, an award that requires a group to volunteer at least 1,000 hours in a year. YAB members almost doubled that goal with 1,992 hours in 2012, according to Smith.
The Cardboard Campout for the Homeless is one of many community service projects, Smith noted.
The youths also adopted a family at Christmas, cleaned up streets after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony, donated blankets to a local soup kitchen and worked as summer camp counselors in training.
Canned food and nonperishable donations can be made to the recreation center at 6630 Van Buren St, New Port Richey, until Nov. 15. For more information contact Elaine Smith at (727) 841-4560 or firstname.lastname@example.org.