VIROQUA, Wis. - Even with a rebounding economy, the number of students facing homelessness and poverty in our area is growing.
About 40 students from Laurel and Viroqua High Schools braved the frigid temperatures Thursday night and slept outside.
It's part of the annual Poverty Awareness event.
It's a task they have to experience for just one day, but for their homeless peers, it could have lasting negative effects over time.
At nearly six in the morning, students were already hard at work breaking down boxes and cleaning up the high school parking lot they called home.
Many of these students are operating on very little sleep.
"I think I got between a half-an-hour and an hour," said Anna Wolfson, a senior at Laurel High School.
"Maybe a half hour or so," said Zoe Brooke Zibton, a senior at Laurel High School.
After a cold night sleeping in nothing more than the clothes they were wearing and using cardboard boxes for shelter, the students have to try and make it through all of their classes.
"I feel really awful," said Wolfson. "I feel absolutely exhausted. I'm sore. That concrete -- no matter how many layers of cardboard you have it is really rough on your body."19246364
Even before half the school day is over, some students seem to be catching a second wind, but for others, the lack of sleep is starting to really take its toll.
"It makes things a lot more difficult and harder to stay focused on what I'm doing," said Brooke Zibton.
For a growing number of students, this routine is a reality.
During the past two school years, Crawford and Vernon Counties each saw homelessness grow by more than a dozen students.
"It's hard to care about what year a war happened when you're tired (and) when you're hungry," said Renee Brooke, lead teacher at Laurel High School.
Brooke sees first-hand how the lack of sleep and the stress of homelessness impacts students in the classroom.
"Concepts build, so if they're not understanding the fractions and then we go to use fractions and quadratic equations, they're behind even more, and it just keeps building," said Brooke. "So, if we lose them too soon, or anywhere along the way, it just gets harder and harder."
Life for these students goes back to normal after Friday, but the experience they've had gives them a better understanding of the difficulty homeless teens in their area are facing.
"It's something that's really eye opening, very life changing and something that is very real, and something that needs to be experienced in order to understand what people go through," said Wolfson.
This year's Poverty awareness event saw its biggest turnout since the project began nine years ago.
Organizers said this was also the coldest year participants have ever faced.
Poverty Awareness was also a fundraiser.
Final numbers aren't in yet, but organizers said they are very close to their goal of $4,000.
All of the money will go to the non-profit Couleecap to help families in need.
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