Coldest Night of the Year
By Laureen F. Guenther
Gathering around a cozy fire in a heated home during frigid Alberta winter temperatures, is something most families take for granted. But this February 24, hundreds of people will take to the streets at dusk in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer for a winter walk in the Coldest Night of the Year event that provides a taste of the harsh elements homeless people experience.
Kent and Jana Sweezey, with their two boys, are participating in the Coldest Night of the Year (CNOY) again, raising awareness of homelessness and funds for the Calgary Mustard Seed. This is their third CNOY walk since friends invited them to join in 2016.
“The event’s been a great opportunity for us, with our children,” Kent Sweezey says, “to be able to come and serve in the community and act out our family’s faith and be more mindful citizens.” As believers in Jesus, “we feel we need to be compassionate to those that are less fortunate and live that out.”
The family will walk in Calgary East, one of Calgary’s three CNOY events. They start at Eastside City Church with a 5 p.m. opening program, before about 150 walkers head out. The Sweezeys walk 5 km, but walkers can also choose 2 km or 10 km. There are rest stops on the way and the walk ends back at the church with a simple meal.
“(Our children) have never ever had to struggle with, “is there going to be supper?” says Jana Sweezey. “Is there going to be a bed to sleep in?” …They think that everybody has those things. … So why should we not all be obligated to help out others that do not have those needs (met)?”
The Coldest Night of the Year event began in Toronto in 2011 but has expanded to 120 walks across Canada this year. Since it began, over $16 million has been raised across the country for local charities that serve hungry, homeless and hurting families.
Each CNOY walk is held the last Saturday in February, which Amanda Stephenson, Calgary Mustard Seed’s Events Specialist, says is traditionally considered the coldest night of the year.
In 2017, Stephenson says, CNOY walkers in Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton raised nearly $100,000 for their local Mustard Seed. This year they hope to exceed that amount.
James and Ben Sweezey raise their own CNOY funds and do their part to raise awareness.
“(James) keeps wearing the (CNOY) toque to school every day, and last year it was bright yellow, so it wouldn’t get missed,” Jana says. “He’s been asked a few times about, what is this Coldest Night of the Year? So he’s had to explain.”
Kent and Jana find CNOY has influenced their own perspective of homelessness. “You start appreciating the mental illness, addictions, and even the economy the way it was. … Having that perspective and doing this event has broadened our perspective.”
Expanding the understanding of homelessness is a key goal for CNOY-hosting agencies.
“(CNOY) gives a small glimpse into the reality that those facing poverty and homelessness face most days of their lives,” says Byron Bradley, Mustard Seed managing director in Red Deer. “Our routes are set up intentionally to show people where a lot of our guests walk each and every day, regardless of the temperature.”
Last year was Red Deer’s first CNOY walk in support of The Mustard Seed that had recently moved into the area. The 108 walkers raised $20,600. This year, they hope for 125 walkers and $25,000.
“With the 350 lunches we deliver each school day, to the 125 people that we serve dinner to, we rely on the support from the community to care for their most hurting neighbours,” Bradley explains.
Laura Robinson is excited to walk in Red Deer again this year. In 2017, her first CNOY, she raised funds on her own, but friends walked with her.
“They didn’t have much awareness of what the Mustard Seed or what this walk represented,” Robinson says. “This year, they signed up again…and this time they are fundraising and they’re rocking it! I now have ten people on my team!”
But her fundraising is just the beginning.
“My goal was to get rid of the stigma of homelessness, addiction, mental health (issues), and what a great way to do it,” she says.