For Bruce Sonnenberg, spending a night sleeping on the streets of downtown Toronto once a year was just as much about raising awareness for homeless youth than it was about raising money.
Every year for the last 10 Sonnenberg, regional vice-president for Central Canada with PCL Constructors, has participated in Covenant House Toronto’s Sleep Out, Executive Edition, to experience what it’s like for people living on the streets. This past November marked his last sleep out. Over the years he raised over $500,000 for the cause.
“Eventually all good things have to come to an end and I decided it would be my last year. I’ll hopefully try and convince somebody else to get involved,” Sonnenberg told the Daily Commercial News.
“For me it was an awareness thing to begin with, to fully understand the homeless situation in Toronto…I think that is important for everybody. We all, maybe before we have that understanding, have a perception of what homeless people are like but after you are aware of what they are going through I think it can change how you react to these people. It can also create a want to help. After seeing what they are going through I realized I needed to do more. The other thing that I realized through all this is how much industry cares about homeless people.”
Over the years, Sonnenberg was often one of the top fundraisers in the city and this year was no exception. He raised $78,383 and helped Covenant House surpass their goal of raising $1,264,072, with all of the money raised going to support Toronto’s homeless youth. He reflected on how he first got involved.
“It was about 12 years ago that Covenant House did it for the first time. One of my colleagues at PCL did it for the first two years and then approached me because he was retiring,” he recalled. “He said ‘would you be willing to take this over from me?’ and I said, ‘I will definitely look into it.’ I always had a passion for the underprivileged and to me it looked like this would align with some of my personal values so I went to the event the first year and that was my real first exposure to homelessness.
“After I did it the first year I just realized how great the need is. I also realized how much industry was supporting me and then I just thought ‘I’ve got to continue on with this.’”
The Sleep Out usually begins with executives meeting with homeless youth, youth who were helped by Covenant House or a keynote speaker. Sonnenberg said many homeless youth leave their homes to escape abusive relationships.
“Having that experience to sit with these people and talk to them and just realize that they are really no different than I am,” Sonnenberg said. “The only difference is I received opportunity in my family and they didn’t. That’s all they were lacking is the opportunity. To hear some of the stories from some of the youth that came in that were at Covenant House and to let us know what they are doing now, they are successful managers, one even got a scholarship to one of the universities in the U.S. so to hear those stories is really inspiring.”
This year’s keynote speaker was Joe Roberts, also known as the “Skidrow CEO.”
He started experimenting with drugs at a young age and he ran away to Vancouver in 1986. He sought help from a youth homeless shelter similar to Covenant House, that eventually reconnected him with his mother in Ontario.
“(He) was CEO of the firm 12 years after he got off the street and then remembered the promise he made that he was going to give back,” Sonnenberg explained. “He hired an agent and the agent said ‘Well you know in Canada people walk across the country to give back and raise awareness’ so he ended up getting a grocery cart and walked from Newfoundland to Vancouver to raise awareness for homelessness and now he’s a motivational speaker.”
When asked if there were any experiences that stood out over the years, Sonnenberg had many stories to share.
“I was sleeping out on the sidewalk. It was a cold night and I had a scarf around my neck and I thought the wind was blowing and the scarf was rubbing against my face and then I turned to see that was actually a rat against my face,” he said. “I quickly sat up and the rat took off. That opened my eyes to what homeless people have to deal with.”
He also recalled being driven around some of the hardest hit areas in Toronto.
“Just to see the homelessness out there was something else and then they also pointed out some of the areas where some of the youth had been trafficked through the years and we got exposure to what that was all about,” he said. “Seeing all that first-hand really opened my eyes.”
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