On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Mark Hennessy returned from a European business trip.
That night, IBM’s general manager did not sleep in his Westport home. Instead, Mark put on several layers of warm clothes, grabbed his sleeping bag, and found a grate near the Lincoln Tunnel. Like a homeless person, he spent the night on the cold city streets of New York.
Mark was not alone. With 150 other business leaders, he was raising awareness of — and money for — Covenant House.
Mark serves on the board of directors of the organization, which provides crisis care, outreach, health services, education and job training to thousands of homeless teenagers each year.
The “Executive Sleepout” was no mere publicity stunt. It raised $2.6 million for Covenant House’s 22 locations in the US, Canada and Latin America.
And it made a profound impact on Mark himself.
“It was a daunting experience,” Mark says, of his night spent sleeping on the street.
“These are really tough conditions. Young kids are out there every night.”
As a 3-year Covenant House board member, Mark has seen staff members provide shelter, food, respect and unconditional love to 56,000 homeless teens a year. He’s watched as many of those youngsters struggle to turn their lives around.
But nothing compared to one real night on the street.
Following the advice of a couple of “veterans” who had participated in last year’s sleepout, Mark found a spot on a corner near the Lincoln Tunnel.
“It was cold and windy,” Mark says. “And noisy. I had no idea how much activity there is from trucks, buses and delivery vans.”
Sleeping was particularly difficult.
“I’d just gotten in from Europe that morning,” Mark notes. “I was pretty tired. But at 2 a.m., the cold concrete seeped up through the cardboard box, through my sleeping bag, my long underwear and my clothes. I wondered how these kids do this every night.”
At 4:30 a.m. Mark got up. He and a few other executives found coffee. He showered, then headed to work at IBM’s Armonk headquarters.
That’s a few miles — and an entire world — away from New York’s streets. The distance will stay with Mark for a long time.
He’s more inspired than ever to help get as many beds, and as much help, as possible. Mark says, “I have a new appreciation for these kids’ incredible survival challenges.”
He’ll remember his rough night. He’ll think of the 6,100 homeless teenagers Covenant House New York serves each year.
Each has a story to tell.
Before he hit the street, Mark spoke with a boy named Josh. When he was 10, his mother introduced him to drugs. At 17, driving while high, he crashed his car and killed his best friend. He went from a coma to jail, then to the streets.
Thanks to Covenant House, he’s now attending community college, and working 2 jobs. “I’m never going back where I was,” he told Mark.
Mark thinks of his own son and daughter, and the teenagers he’s known through sports and school activities here.
“The kids at Covenant House are like kids in Westport, or anywhere,” Mark says. “They have a strong work ethic, and great dreams and aspirations.
“I know all of us who slept out one night are more inspired than ever to help all of those kids at Covenant House achieve their dreams.”
(For more information on Covenant House, click here.)