Exec learns firsthand how the homeless live

November 18, 2013, 9:16 PM UTC

As SVP of the Global Sparkling Brand Center at Coca-Cola , Wendy Clark spends plenty of time studying young people. Understanding how young people live and what they aspire to is key to the success of this rising-star executive who oversees brand strategy and integrated marketing communications, including global design and digital and experiential marketing, for brands like Coke, Sprite and Fanta. Last week, Clark decided to learn about an aspect of youth that she never knew: how the homeless live.

Guest Post by Wendy Clark, SVP of the Global Sparkling Brand Center, The Coca-Cola Company

I’m one of those people with ice-cold hands.

You know the type. When you shake my hand, I apologize and say something like “cold hands, warm heart” and then may add my second hand to your warm hand and hold the handshake for as long as possible to steal some of your warmth.

While I was born and raised in England (cold and wet), I spent my teenage years in Florida and have lived in the southern U.S. since. Indeed, as the saying goes, my blood has thinned.

So it was uncharacteristic, to say the least, that I slept outside on a cardboard box last Thursday night.

My friend and colleague at The Coca-Cola Company, Ben Deutsch, is on the board of Covenant House of Georgia, and he asked me to join their annual Sleep-Out fundraiser. Last year, across the country, 450 executives slept outside and raised more than $3 million. This year, Ben and I and some 45 executives from companies including Accenture , Comcast (CMCSA) and Cox Enterprises spent from dinnertime Thursday until 7 a.m. Friday on the campus of the Covenant House shelter. Under a full moon, in temperatures dipping to 35 degrees, we slept in sleeping bags on flattened cardboard boxes.

This was just one night for us. For more than 700 young Atlantans, sleeping on the streets is every night.

These youth have varied stories, with common themes that are tough to hear. One in four, according to Covenant House, are victims of human trafficking or sex trade. Many more have been beaten down by bullying, and are desperate to get their lives on track. “We’re just regular kids trying to do right,” said one Covenant House resident we met.

Like all of us, they need love. They need an outreached hand and somebody’s faith that there’s warmth in their hearts beyond their own cold hands. These homeless youth have been let down by “the system” and by adults so many times that their trust in anyone beyond themselves is incredibly low.

They suspected us–the 45 executives who showed up Thursday night to learn first-hand what their lives are like. But it was amazing to see the bonds between the young residents and the Covenant House staff. Lorie, a case manager in my small group, joked effortlessly with the residents. Meanwhile, she was firm about her expectations of them, constantly reinforcing their strengths and what they’re capable of achieving.

Each of the 58 Covenant House residents has “case work,” a plan toward his or her own definition of success: a job, an apartment, or maybe independence. “For our youth, completing their case work is critical. Submitting their plans, working their plans leads to more successful outcomes,” Lorie said. Most of the residents have outside jobs. Covenant House holds 80% of their income until they move out. Then they get all of their money back — along with lots of encouragement to tackle life outside the shelter.

My overnight reminded me that too often we assume that a person’s circumstance indicates talent. Touring Covenant House’s colorful Art Room, I saw amazing talent – clever, interpretative, honest, really good art. I also witnessed plenty of positive attitudes. “It’s not where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going,” one male resident said during a small group session.

At midnight, as Ben and I lay side by side in our sleeping bags on our cardboard boxes, I gazed up at an unobstructed moon. There was a hush across our Sleep-Out group. It wasn’t a cold silence, but rather, a silence of contemplation – and understanding and belief in possibility.

Since I returned on Friday morning, so many people have asked me if I was cold that night. Honestly, I have no idea. My mind was focused on anything but the temperature of my body.

Clark’s Covenant House Sleep-Out fundraising page remains live at http://bit.ly/1aETd0U.