I put on a pair of gloves, followed by one of my favorite beanie hats. The temperature was dropping rapidly already.
As my cousin Krysta and I walked toward what was to become our temporary new neighborhood, I watched my exhaled breaths mix with the oxygen in the air. Each breath turned into a cloud that pirouetted and disappeared.
A sizeable section of the ground before us was covered by large pieces of cardboard. What we didn't know when we signed up for Cardboard City 2012 was that we had to build our own sanctuary.
"Should we just find a box that is already put together?" I asked.
Krysta's answer was no; she was confident that we were capable of building a cardboard box that we could share over the next 12 hours. That was our cue to gather as many pieces of cardboard as we could, along with a roll of duct tape that would be used to keep the corners together.
By the time we agreed that all four cardboard walls were sturdy enough to inhabit, we placed a piece of cardboard over the top of our makeshift house and then gave each other a high-five.
It was a big "house" indeed. We had plenty of room and an impressively high ceiling. One passerby even remarked that we looked like the "richie riches" on the hill.
But this life that we had chosen to simulate for one night in mid-November was by no means full of riches and glory. It took me less than a few hours to realize that it was full of cold and pain.
Krysta and I were participating in Cardboard City 2012 via the Community Action Partnership for Somerset County. The simulation required us to leave our cell phones and other electronics in our cars and pack lots of warm clothes to help us survive the night.
Turns out that I wasn't as prepared as I should have been. I brought one pair of gloves, my hat, two jackets and a pair of pajama pants. And, well, that's about it.
"Do you have boots?" Krysta asked.
"Boots? No, I don't have boots," I said. "Why? Do you have boots?"
"I have boots, and hand warmers and foot warmers," Krysta said. "Oh, and three sleeping bags."
Wow. I suddenly felt like I was going to be the homeless-est of the homeless.
Krysta and I put the finishing touches on our cardboard box-house before walking into St. Paul's United Church of Christ for a soup kitchen meal consisting of a bottle of water, a piece of bread, two cookies, an apple and a bowl of soup.
When we got back to our box—full bellies and all—we tried to get as comfortable as possible. That was rather hard to do, considering that the ground was so cold.
"So, what should we do now?" Krysta asked as soon as I yawned my first of many yawns.
"Should we go to sleep?"
"It's only 9 o'clock," she said.
By 9:30 p.m., I was down for the count. It wasn't that I was bored; I think I just wanted to fall asleep before the cold set in. There was, after all, an open "door" in our box that invited the cold inside, and that door was located directly to my left (our box was big, yes, but definitely not perfect).
Sleeping in a cardboard box doesn't necessarily mean that you sleep. And if you do, you don't sleep well. Or at least I didn't. I remember waking up at various times in the middle of the night, wondering if my feet were frostbitten and what I could do to elevate my body temperature. One trick I discovered was that it was best to breathe into my jacket rather than into the open air; inhaling semi-warm air was much more tolerable than the bitter cold air.
At 5:30 a.m., Krysta and I were ready to roll up our sleeping bags and leave. By this time, the coldness had seeped into the edges of my bones and I understood firsthand what it felt like to be homeless.
I would like to thank the Community Action Partnership for Somerset County, St. Paul's United Church of Christ and our fellow participants for allowing Krysta and I to take on a challenge that gave us a meaningful new perspective on poverty and hunger. It was an experience that we'll never forget, or regret.
This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful to be thankful for so much more.
(Kayla Pongrac, Stoystown, works at Laurel Arts, Somerset.)