I love the way the city of Chicago glows at night – it’s beautiful enough for me to forget about the miserable traffic I just sat through to get here. Chicago has brought me into its skyline for a multitude of reasons over the years from client meetings, sporting events, concerts, to dining – The Windy City always impresses.

But, tonight is different.

Tonight, I am homeless.

It’s easy to become hypnotized by the beauty of the city when you’re in it.  Moving quickly from location to location, with so much going on around you, it’s almost normal to just fall into the fold and be swept away. In the mix of that beauty, however, is a very real problem – one there’s no ignoring.  People are living on the streets, bundled up to do their best to stay warm, with signs telling you their stories and asking for some help.

I’ve seen them – we probably all have.  They are Chicago’s homeless.  And until I volunteered to sleep out, I didn’t realize that homeless also included youths.

During my short time at Cisco, we have been able to give back to our community in many different ways.  Some have been as simple as donating money or even a coat, but there have other opportunities for Cisconians to give back that take a little more action.  We have assisted with building homes with Habitat for Humanity, cleaned and cooked meals for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House, and prepped food for those in need at the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

But never in my time here at Cisco had I seen an opportunity to give back quite like The Sleep Out.

The night began with us meeting as a group outside the Covenant House of Illinois, this is where we began our candle light vigil.  We heard from a young lady who had previously been homeless as a youth and who had also been helped by the wonderful folks at the Covenant House.  Her story was inspiring.

From there we made our way over to St. James Cathedral where we spent the next couple of hours understanding the true mission of Covenant House. After previewing portions of a yet to be released documentary, and listening to story after story – we were now aware of why this cause is so important, and who it effects.

Each story brought us closer to our night out in the elements. Finally, we were homeless.

We grabbed our sleeping bags.  We grabbed our cardboard.  And we found a spot to claim for the Cisco crew.  We lucked out when it came to the weather – it could have been so much worse on a mid-November night in Chicago.  The night before our sleep out had been really windy – which would have made for a really long and tough night. The night following our sleep out? Chicago saw complete downpours.

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A few of us couldn’t quite fall asleep right away, so we roamed the city a little bit.  As we walked the city, we found the real homeless of Chicago sleeping in different parts of the city trying to stay warm.  After a little while, we headed back to our own sleeping bags to try getting a few hours of rest.

It was odd sleeping outside in the big city.  At around 3AM a large dog walked by us with its owner barking as it went by.  Sirens could be heard all throughout the night.  It was about 5:30AM when we woke up and started packing up our things.  During that time, we heard stories of some of our teammates who couldn’t sleep at all.  Someone had picked up hot breakfast sandwiches and we shared them with the homeless people we had seen earlier that evening sleeping on the streets.  At one point, we were able to provide a homeless man with shoes. The shoes he had were way too big and not even close to being warm enough.

For all of us who participated in the #CHILSleepOut, we were able to plan and shop for our one night of homelessness.  We also knew that once we woke up, it would be over for us.  But after this experience, we are different.  I am different.  I have a different appreciation for the things in my life that I may have taken for granted before.  And more importantly, I have a different appreciation for those I have in my life.

Three things I learned by participating in Sleep Out

  1. The homeless can be youths. I think we all make the assumption that issues like homelessness only impact adults as that is usually who we encounter on city streets.  But that certainly isn’t the case. Kids are affected by homelessness, too.
  2. Homelessness can occur to anyone at any time. I learned this first hand from a member of the Covenant House.  She lived in a well to do neighborhood and attended very fine public schools.  When her mother died, that all changed.
  3. We can make a difference. We really can.  Maybe not an immediate global impact but we can make a difference by helping one person at a time, one kind act at a time.  I have always believed this but every time I volunteer and give back, it gets reinforced.

I am so grateful to work for a company like Cisco for so many reasons, but one that always stands out is in how we are encouraged and empowered to give back and help our local and global communities.