Friday, June 22, 2012

The real story behind the CEO Sleepout

Financial services bigwigs, political heavyweights and diverse CEOs shared one big concrete mattress last night in Sydney.

All in a good cause, we participated in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout along with 1,046 other Australian CEOs.

Let me be clear. This was not a networking event. It was a night where people without titles lined up for a cup of soup, organised their three sheets of cardboard, heard from people with personal experiences of homelessness then tried to get some shut eye. It was also a night that raised almost $5 million for Vinnies to use in helping the homeless in Australia.

For us it was just one night. For Australia’s homeless it’s much longer.

And it was the Australians with a direct and personal experience of homelessness who stole the show. Not the corporate bigwigs braving a single winter night in the outdoors.

So this post is dedicated to the kindness of strangers, and the power of narrative.

A personal story

Familiar streets look strange this morning. I’m looking at them from the “street level.”  Last night I felt almost queasy at the thought of sleeping outside in winter. Today all I can think about is how many people worry about that every night, and the fractures in their lives that have led them to have no place to call home.

Last night, thanks to three people who shared their all-too-real experience of homelessness, of having no keys, of having no place to go to, I rediscovered the power of narrative. Three people told hundreds of CEOs their story in Sydney last night. Real stories, real tragedy, real pain.

Megan’s story

Megan looks like many other women in a suit. She is well spoken, attractive, in her 40s and has just finished her Master’s degree. Her siblings are a business owner and a lawyer. Her mother is a professional; an expert in her field. Megan told us of how she became the inconvenient reminder for her family of earlier abuse. This meant that when, as an adult, she left a violent relationship with two children, she had nowhere to go, no one to call on, no one to bail her out.

Megan nearly lost her own daughter as their difficult family circumstances led her young teenage daughter to increasingly stay away from home. Megan gave up her job to find her daughter, and in so doing lost the roof over their heads as well as her income. Eventually, it was Vinnies who helped Megan get her life back on track through providing the simple things that most of us take for granted. Beds. Somewhere safe to stay. A meal. People to help her through this time.

The untold story of Australia’s homeless – and the kindness of strangers

We often assume people on the streets are older, male, and have substance abuse or mental health issues that led them to become so dislocated. Some are older, male, and have significant challenges with alcohol and/or drugs. Almost all, it seems, have personal experience of terrible tragedy, of abuse, or of life-fracturing events. Often, it’s many such events that led them to become homeless.

And so this morning, as I headed home in the dark to my three children and my husband, and my warm house, I have rediscovered not only the power of storytelling, but also the power we each have to make a significant difference in someone else’s life.

The power of a nod, and a hello to a homeless person on the street.

The power of a donation to help someone who doesn’t have anyone else to help them.

And the power of allowing people to tell their own stories in their own voice so they may be truly heard.

What will your story be? Will you help with a ‘hello’, a donation or a friendly ear?



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