Peter Larson, 15, brushes his teeth, tugs a hat over his ears and hugs his mom good night before walking out of his family's cozy home and climbing into a cardboard box on his back porch in Plymouth, Minn. (pop. 65,894).
On the first night of Peter's 40-night "sleep out" that ends Dec. 23, the temperature is expected to drop into the lower 20s—a forecast that makes the lanky teenager smile.
"This is swimming weather," says Peter, exhaling frosty breaths as he burrows between four blankets and two down comforters. "You don't know what cold is until the middle of a December night in Minnesota. Some nights, I'm afraid that my hair will freeze to my head."
Every November and December since he was a first-grader, Peter has camped out for a cause—experiencing what it's like to sleep in Minnesota's frigid air while raising money to help homeless people stay warm in affordable housing in the Minneapolis suburbs.
"I do this every year to build awareness that, even in my town, there are people who are homeless," he says. "Most of us see them every day but never really realize their circumstances."
A warm heart
Peter developed a heart for the homeless at a young age.
He was 6 when his father, Bruce Larson, organized a one-night campout for his Cub Scout pack at a local park as part of the Sleep Out Campaign organized each fall by Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners (IOCP), a nonprofit organization based in Wayzata, Minn., that serves low-income families. Peter slept in a tent and collected canned goods to donate.
As part of the experience, Peter's father recruited the Sleep Out Campaign's founder, Bob Fisher, to speak to his scouts.
"I told the kids what it feels like to sleep out in the freezing cold," recalls Fisher, a veteran winter camper. "I explained how, when these kids leave their tents the next day, they can go home to their nice warm beds and play on their Playstation 2s and have a warm shower and a good meal. But what would it be like if you're a homeless child and had to sleep out like this every day?"
Fisher also told the youngsters that, for every $500 raised, IOCP could provide one family with housing assistance.
"When I heard that number," Peter remembers, "it just clicked in my brain, and it was as if someone told me that this is what I should do that I could help another family."
The next year, after his Cub Scout pack slept in boxes for a single night, Peter asked his parents if he could continue camping in his yard on weekend nights and try to raise $500. Peter went before his congregation at Messiah United Methodist Church and asked for support, setting up a table outside the sanctuary to take donations. He raised $1,000, enough to assist two families.
By the fifth grade, he sought permission to sleep in a box for 40 nights and raise even more money. His mother, Joni, was apprehensive, but his father assured her that "Peter knows how to winter camp. He'll be fine." Still, she insisted on placing the box on their locked, screened-in back porch for safety. "My other rules were that, no matter how he slept, he'd have to get up and go to school every morning and that his school work could not suffer," she says. "But that hasn't been a problem. He's a good student."
A champion for strangers
Now a sophomore at Wayzata High School and in his 10th year of helping the homeless, Peter has braved more than 250 cold nights in a cardboard box, and he has raised about $185,000 to help families struggling to pay the rent amid job losses, wage cuts and decreased work hours. In addition to contributions from church members, two local restaurants donate part of a day's profits while Peter waits on tables and shares his story with anyone who will listen.
"Peter is our wonderkid," says Jill Kohler, IOCP's development director. "We probably have a thousand people who sleep out for us at least one night, but Peter is the only one who sleeps out all 40 nights. He's shown our community that you don't have to be big and famous, or even an adult, to help."
As part of Peter's education on homelessness, he's spoken with social workers about how housing is the cornerstone of family stability, toured homes built for safety and affordability and, last year, met several families who have benefitted from his selflessness.
"I told him that my new home is everything to me," says Makida Abdulahi, 38, an Ethiopian immigrant and mother of four children, who cleans offices in the evenings and moved last year into a home in Wayzata (pop. 4,113). "My life is very hard, but everything has changed since we got our home."
Before meeting Abdulahi and her three oldest daughters, ages 8 to 11, Peter couldn't put a face on the people he was helping. Now he can. "They're just normal people who needed a little help," he says.
Building his fort
Camping in the cold has not been without its adventures.
In the early years, Peter spent hours designing and building his corrugated homesometimes connecting two boxes and adding a night-light so that he could read before going to sleep. His family's Schitzu poodle, Teddy, slept with him, but Teddy's company was short-lived. "He kept going to the bathroom on my sleeping bag so we had to put him back in the house," Peter says.
Last year, the temperature dropped to 20 degrees below zero on several nights, and Kohler urged Peter to skip those days. "Peter didn't see an issue, and he slept outside anyway," his mother says.
His mentor isn't surprised with Peter's dedication. "He's has never once said, 'Gee, I don't know. This is too hard,'" says Fisher, 61.
This year, Peter is sleeping in a cardboard box that measures 8 feet long by 4 feet wide and has a 4-foot ceiling. A blue tarp on top protects against rain and snow and, on especially cold nights, Peter slides into a blue and yellow sleeping bag made by his Grandma Larson. The accommodations are not as cozy as the twin bed in his upstairs bedroom, but they suit Peter just fine.
"He actually sleeps better outside, and I think he wakes up happier," says Joni, who on some mornings must shake the box to wake her son.
Peter's goal this year is his most ambitious yet—to raise $100,000, enough to provide 50 families with a warm place to sleep.
"I can't experience exactly what homeless people feel, because they don't have a warm house to go back into when they wake up and don't have parents inside waiting for them if they get frostbite," Peter says. "But when you know someone's in need, you want to help them. And that's what I'm trying to do."