One Winter Night: A 'humbling' experience for M-S counselor

CHAMPAIGN — All Tim Lybarger had to get him through 12 hours in 18-degree weather at the corner of Neil and Main streets was a cardboard refrigerator box and some duct tape.

"You do whatever you want to try and stay warm and make yourself as comfortable as possible on the street," he said of his home for the night.

Last Friday, the Mahomet-Seymour High School counselor was one of 335 people hunkering down in downtown Champaign as part of CU at Home's eighth-annual One Winter Night fundraiser, providing two-thirds of the organization's annual operating budget that helps with transitional housing, day-time drop-in centers and the collaboration project, CU at Work program, with the City of Champaign Township, where the homeless are paid to help clean up the city.

The opportunity to walk in someone else's shoes for a night was one that Lybarger felt a "nudge" to do after learning more about the experience from his friends at Urbana's Quest United Methodist Church. So he set a goal to raise $1,000 months ahead of the event.

"I just wanted to contribute in some way," he said. "Get out in the community and show God's love to other people that aren't as blessed as what I've been."

So far, $234,500 has been raised, which is $15,500 short of CU at Home's goal. Rob Dalhaus III, executive director at CU at Home, said fundraising efforts will continue through Feb. 15.

But raising money and sticking it out in the cold from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. are two totally separate things.

"I've only been out here three hours so far," Lybarger said. "It's kind of a reality check."

A few hours into the experience, Lybarger had received his fair share of onlooker interest.

"People have been supportive," he said. "They'll come by, they'll ask questions."

But no conversation proved more interesting than one struck up by a gentleman who is homeless.

"(He) stopped and talked to me and I spent probably an hour talking with him just sitting here listening to his story," Lybarger said.

His biggest takeaway?

"We talked about how everybody's story is not necessarily about the money," Lybarger said. "People often think, 'I'm going to give you $5 and that's going to make your day.' He said (for) a lot of people who are homeless, it's not about the money, it's about a lot of other extenuating circumstances that compound themselves on each other that lead to their situation."

The 12-hour stint was a "humbling" experience for Lybarger, who knew very well at any time throughout the night that he could walk down the street, get in his car and turn on the heater — a luxury most people who are homeless don't have.

"They don't have the luxury of going home and sleeping in a bed. They don't have the luxury of knowing that they can go to a warm place anytime they want to," Lybarger said. "It's sad, but at the same time, it's motivating to want to try to contribute in some other ways besides this."

The reality check is the very thinking behind Melany Jackson's, CU at Home founder, conceptualization of the fundraiser.

"It gives a lot of empathy and passion for people on the street," Dalhaus said.

Of the comments he receives from One Winter Night attendees, by far the biggest is the overwhelming feeling of "loneliness."

"It can be pretty lonely out there at 2 or 3 in the morning," Dalhaus said. "You don't expect the loneliness that comes with it, but that's the reality for our friends in the street."

More than anything, Lybarger hopes the fundraiser increases awareness for Champaign-Urbana's "community without an address."

"(Homelessness) is very real, very present in our community," Lybarger said. "We drive down the street a lot of times and just glance over people who are legitimately in this situation. (This is) just raising awareness."

His next steps?

"Personally, just the continued motivation to continue helping out in any situation," Lybarger said. "We're all in this together so the people that need help, that I can help provide, that's the takeaway — that I can look for other opportunities to do stuff like this."

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