William C. Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 10 Jul 2005 20:17:18 -0400


Sunday, July 10, 2005

Teen-agers get firsthand look at poverty, homeless

By Steve Rundio

Want to challenge a youngster? Give the youngster a post-hole digger.

"Post-hole digging -- that was the toughest," said Brandi Greeno, one of 10
Tomah youths who spent a week in Madison sprucing up houses and serving
meals to the homeless. They are members of First United Methodist Church of
Tomah, and they provided unpaid labor for Porchlight Inc., to fulfill a
requirement for confirmation.

Greeno was joined by Kirsten Armour, Matt Buswell, Philip Deming, Katelyn
Gernhart, Jorden James, Sarah Kuehn, Melissa Laxton, Hailey McNutt and Dixie
Perrigo. Another 28 youths from the Chippewa Falls area participated.

The adults from Tomah who accompanied the youths were Pastor Bill Swan, his
wife Bonnie, Pat Reis and Sue O'Connor.

It was an eye-opening experience for the youngsters, ages 12-16. None had
ever come face-to-face with homelessness or poverty.

"There are way more homeless people than you think," Deming said.

It's estimated that Dane County's homeless population on any given night
exceeds 1,000 men, women and children. They are homeless for a variety of
reasons -- drugs, alcoholism, mental illness, abusive relationships or

The group stayed at Grace Episcopal Church on Madison's Capitol Square,
where many of the city's homeless live. McNutt said the experience shattered
her conceptions about who the homeless are and what they look like.

"I thought they would all probably look like a wreck, but some of them
looked like they could be a doctor or something," McNutt said.

Encountering a homeless person can be a jolting experience. Gernhart almost
fainted one day when she saw a man lying on the ground in front of the
church where they served meals.

"I thought he was dead. And then I saw him breathing," she said. "It was a
shock at first, seeing how much poverty there is."

Pastor Swan said it's healthy for Tomah youngsters to witness poverty

"Most of these kids lead relatively sheltered lives, which is good, but
there's another world out there," he said. "Our faith doesn't ask us to be
just about us, it asks us to reach out to others."

Members of the group woke as early at 3:30 a.m. and put in full days of hard

One of the projects was moving mounds of dirt and wood chips and planting
flowers at an E. Washington Ave. duplex.

The group was impressed by the friendliness and gratitude of those they

"One guy said, ‘God Bless You' just because I gave him brownie," Greeno

Armour said, "One of the guys asked me, "Hi shorty, how are you doing?' They
really appreciated us being there."

Most were genuinely surprised by how much of a difference they could make.

"I knew it would change somebody's life, but not so dramatically," Perrigo

Andy Hall of the Wisconsin State Journal contributed to this report.