WESLEY CHAPEL — This weekend, some local teens are getting a taste of what it feels like to be hungry and homeless.
Eight Pasco teens will fast for 30 hours, ending at 5 p.m. today, to raise money and awareness about world hunger through the national "30 Hour Famine Project." As part of the effort, the teens also spent Friday night sleeping outside Atonement Lutheran Church in cardboard boxes.
"We're going to try to show them what it's like to go without food and shelter," said youth group director Brenda Lenz.
The kids, who range in age from eighth-graders to college students, have set up online accounts for taking donations at 30hourfamine.org. Seattle-based World Vision, the group that created the project, has raised $130 million in 100 countries since it began in 1992, according to company spokesperson John Yeager.
About 1,600 churches and about 500,000 teens around the country have participated in the project so far this year.
Lenz's daughter Cassandra, 17, a junior at Zephyrhills High School, felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension about the program.
"I'm excited because it'll raise awareness," she said. "I'm kind of scared of sleeping outside. It'll teach us what they do in other countries and how they feel."
Cassandra said she told her friends at school about the project. "They think I'm crazy," she said, adding that she explained to them the importance of the mission.
During the 30-hour fast, the kids can drink juices and water, but no solid food or protein drinks.
Brenda Lenz, who is a licensed practical nurse at Watson Clinic in Lakeland, said she spoke with a pharmacist and another medical professional who said that unless the child has a medical condition, there shouldn't be a problem with the fasting.
The parents had to give their consent, too. The students, who attend Zephyrhills High, Wesley Chapel High and Wiregrass Ranch, ate an early lunch at school Friday before beginning the fast at 11 a.m., she said.
Sleeping outside in boxes Friday night was originally a surprise, until one of the kids caught wind of the plan. Once the secret was out, however, the kids agreed to participate, she said.
"Do you think they want to do it?" Lenz said, referring to the impoverished children around the world who really are hungry and without shelter. "They would be glad to have a box."
Lenz led role-playing games Friday night so the teens could "see how children survive and make do with what they have … and accomplish these tasks with their disabilities."
The church, at 29617 State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel, about a mile east of Interstate 75, will host a spaghetti dinner at 5 p.m. tonight to break the fast. The public is invited. A donation is requested for the meal, with the proceeds going to the World Vision program.
Down the road, if the teens raise enough money, they'll be eligible to participate in a "Famine Tour" that would take them to locations in Africa and South America.
Later, they will do a service project cleaning the church inside and out and sorting food that was donated to the church's food pantry.
The youth group teens have taken a mission trip to the Virgin Islands and this summer will travel to Louisiana, said Lenz, who has served as youth director for 31/2 years. She got the idea for the Famine Project after a flier appeared in her mailbox.
Up to a billion people a day go to bed hungry, according to a recent United Nations report.
"That's just a number," said World Vision's Yeager. "When a young person spends the night outside and hungry, it gives them a real tangible feeling for what that's like. It gets inside your heart."