Last night I had the honour of sleeping outside the offices of my illustrious employer in Reading. I'll spare the usual jokes and sarcasm, because this was all about Byte Night.
For the uninitiated, Byte Night is a yearly occurrence where a bunch of IT professionals basically give up the comforts of home and bed for a night in order to raise money for and better understand the plight of homeless children. The monies raised go to a charity called Action for Children, and the understanding gained, well, that's right here. Hopefully I can convey a little of it to you...
Those of us taking part (about 150 in Thames Valley Park this year) have been raising sponsorship money over the past few weeks and last night we all gathered in one of the Oracle buildings for the evening. The format was pretty simple - registration for the event, some speeches, some food, a fundraising raffle and an auction before heading outside to bed down under the clouds. Since I've not done this before, many of the things we were told were news to me, and Ive still got a bit of a lump in my throat.
What sort of kids end up in care, or on the streets? Troublemakers, misfits and junkies, right? No - dead wrong. Example stories we were told of cases typical of those in which Action for Children find themselves involved:
1) A teenage boy, sleeping rough on the streets. His parent were seperated, and living at his Mum's house had become impossible for him, since there were only two bedrooms and he has a younger brother and sister. He'd tried staying with his Dad, but his Dad's hooked on smack, so its not the nicest of places, with junkies in and out all day. He'd stayed with one of his Dad's 'straighter' pals for a while, but that hadn't worked out, and he was on the street. Without Action for Children's intervention he'd probably still be there, but they managed to help him find somewhere to live, set him up, and start him out with a job. A chance of a normal life.
2) A teenage girl, also sleeping rough. Every Friday, her Dad and Uncle went drinking. When they came home, her uncle would sexually abuse her. This had been going on for years (it started when she was 13) by the time she decided that living rough on the streets was better that what she had to suffer at home. Her Mum had known the abuse was going on - she was certain, because "when I cried, Mum would turn the TV up so she couldn't hear me"...
3) Sometimes the charity can get involved before a Kid hits the streets - perhaps communication has broken down at home, there are arguments, maybe more. Action for Children can often mediate, counsel, generally get things back on track before they get as bad as they can get...
33% of the kids who've been driven to live rough on the streets will attempt suicide. One kid in every three.
So its pretty desperate, isn't it? But, there are always some sad and desperate cases, aren't there? Surely there cant be that many of them? What's the scale of the problem?Well, according to a survey in the UK conducted two years ago, there were 75,000 kids living rough on the streets, and every single one of them will have had a story like those Ive just told you.
I wouldn't say I'd been particularly complacent about the whole issue - I'd read a little of the background before I signed up, and I'd spoken to a few people, but its weird how last night kind of concentrated the mind and helped me to understand why I was really doing this...
At about eleven, we were all shepherded outside. I'd had a vague picture in my mind of being left to find somewhere to huddle on the path round the building, but were were all to sleep on a grassy patch at that back which, in sunnier days, serves as a BBQ area. And let me be clear that the organisers weren't taking any chances with us - we were supplied with groundsheets, bivvy bags, fashionable(!) and warm hats and there would be a constant supply of hot drinks available all night (many decide they'd prefer wine and beer which they'd thoughtfully brought along in their packs). And, if any of us were to feel 'poorly' there were volunteer medical staff on duty. Clearly, none of this is on hand to the kids we're trying to help here but, even so, I still felt a certain amount of trepidation and I wasn't the only one!
Yes, I did get some sleep - about four hours. I woke at about six, gritty eyed and disoriented to discover that breakfast in the form of hot tea and bacon rolls was laid on. Another thing you don't get after a night in a box under Waterloo bridge.
And then, of course, I could drive home, have a hot bath, and get another couple of hours shut-eye in my own bed, if I had a mind to. So what has all this acheived, then?
Well, I've certainly got a new found appreciation of what it must mean to have to sleep rough, rather than to choose to experience a watered down version (paradoxically it would have been more realistic if we had been watered down, but the rain stayed away). But most important of all is not what I did, but what everyone who sponsored me to go through with it has done. Together, we have raised GBP 1700 as I write this. If you want to see what Action for Children do with the money they raise, then look here, but I can tell you that 1700 quid could pay to help that young lad I wrote about set up home for the first time, keep the doors of an emergency drop-in centre open for a week so the poor girl in the story, and many others like her can get a little respite and still leave enough left over for help for that final kid we wrote about to prevent him from being taken into care or hitting the streets himself. And with that one in three attempting suicide, between us we might actually have saved a life here, but of course we'll never know.
So I'm hugely grateful to everyone who has sponsored me, and fit to burst with pride at having such a fantastic, generous and caring bunch of friends and family. And if there's anyone reading this who hasn't sponsored a byte night sleeper this year, then the donations page will be open right through December.
Quite simply, I want to thank you, you're all fantastic.