AUGUSTA — Between the cot that was several inches too short for his 6-foot frame and temperatures that dipped into the single digits, Robby Vachon had a bad Thursday night, catching maybe only an hour of sleep.
He joked Friday morning that he’d like to balance out his cold night in Cony High School’s rock garden with a month in a warm place like Florida. But he was also grateful that when his campout was over, he could go home to take a hot shower and then go to work in a heated building.
“I can’t imagine not having adequate clothing or housing or shelter, because it’s brutal. It was tough,” said Vachon, an education technician and head football coach. “I feel for the people that have to endure that.”
Vachon was one of four educators who slept outside the school Thursday night to raise money and awareness for the Augusta Community Warming Center. The project was organized by the leaders of the junior class.
Class President Kelsey Rohman said they had the idea in a meeting on one of the many extremely cold days this winter.
“We thought we should help people who are actually living outside like this,” she said. “We see people in our community who don’t have a home or a place to go during the day.”
They chose a “Hunger Games” theme to capitalize on the popularity of the book and movie series and also connect to the outdoor survival themes in the series’ plot.
Six pairs of Cony staff members volunteered, with each team representing a different “district,” like the combatants in the Hunger Games. The teams appeared in a video produced by senior Peter Ackerman that was shown at school assembly, and then students selected two teams by putting money into six jars set up in the cafeteria.
The winners, so to speak, were the teams from the Gold Ball District, Vachon and social studies teacher B.L. Lippert — the coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, of Cony’s championship football team — and the Moustache District, social studies teacher Bruce Cooper and English teacher Tom Wells.
“I think the kids thought they were voting for us,” Wells said. “They didn’t know what happened if you won, they just wanted us to win.”
Vachon and Lippert have little camping experience and were ill-equipped for the cold, though the small fire they had permission to start helped. According to the National Weather Service in Gray, the overnight low in Augusta was 6 degrees.
Wells and Cooper were somewhat better prepared, with broken-down cardboard boxes providing some insulation from the ground and three layers of sleeping bags covering them.
“It was at best a fitful sleep, but I think it was definitely a worthwhile experience,” Wells said. “It gave me a renewed appreciation for my house.”
Wells said one reason he volunteered is he knows that the families of some Cony students rely on the warming center, which provides a place for people to escape the cold during the day and also connect with other services they may need.
The warming center is on Front Street along the Kennebec River. It’s open from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. seven days a week through the end of March.
It costs about $15,000 to rent and staff the space starting in mid-December. Funding comes primarily from the United Way of Kennebec Valley, but the center also receives support from other nonprofit organizations, churches, businesses and the city of Augusta.
Because of snow days and February break, Cony’s fundraiser fell short of the $500 goal in raising money just from students, so the organizers decided to schedule the camp out for Thursday night for a chance to raise more money from the parents coming in for parent-teacher conferences.
In the end, the junior class leaders far surpassed their goal. On Friday, they wrote the center a check for $634.37.