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Youth group raises awareness about homelessness

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After trying to sleep on the cold cement of a parking lot for a night, Brandon Boit had a hard time imagining that some homeless people do it night after night.

"It was heartbreaking," said Boit, a youth pastor at Bible Fellowship Church in Rapid City.

The church's youth group hosted a cardboard box city event last weekend, designed to collect canned food for the needy and bring awareness about homelessness. It was the first year for the event, said youth pastor Kyle Goings, but it was popular enough to hold it again in the future.

The idea came from a trip the students went on, he said.

"We wanted to do something big for God and we came up with this after a youth conference about how we can impact the community for Christ," he said. "It's a starting point for that ministry."

More than 70 people attended the Friday-night event, with about 30 students and adults spending the night.

The evening included worship, testimony and more worship. Speaker Donna Kahler shared her testimony about being homeless at one point in her life. She now works at the Cornerstone Rescue Mission.

Peter Thomas, Bible Fellowship lead pastor, used to live in the New York City area and also spoke to participants about his experience with the homeless.

After the speakers and worship, chili and chicken noodle soup were served - an attempt to warm everyone up before hitting the cold pavement, Goings said.

"It helped warm the bellies of everyone; it was 43 degrees through the night," he said.

Participants who spent the night were given only a few items to build a small shelter.

"Boxes, tarp and duct tape and that was it," Goings said.

What they didn't have were cellphones, iPods other electronics. Participants were told not to bring the items because the needy probably wouldn't have them.

Adults, high school and middle school students, and kids as young as 5 and 6 slept - or tried to sleep - alongside their parents, Boit said. A constant prayer vigil also continued throughout the night.

"My back still hurts; I can't even imagine living like that every single night," Boit said. "I was exhausted the next day."

Taylor Escott, 16, had the same experience. She estimates that she only got about two hours of sleep - or less.

"It's hard to live on the street; I don't know how people do it for weeks or years," she said. "It really makes me want to make a difference and help more."

Escott said she plans to work at the mission, and hopes to put a new hobby to use.

"I want to knit mittens and scarves" and distribute them to the homeless, she said. "I just learned to knit this weekend."

For Boit, a night on the cold, hard ground already had changed the way he sees others. On a recent chilly day, he saw a homeless man walking with a shopping cart. Boit had a jacket in the back seat of his car and stopped and gave it to the man.

"He started crying," Boit said. " ... I sat down and started praying for him right there."

The cardboard box city event is just the start of a long-term ministry to help people in the community, he said.

"It changed me, how I think about homeless people," he said. "It touched me."

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