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FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Students at one Fort Worth private middle school got a real world lesson on homelessness. The group from All Saints Episcopal School spent the night sleeping outside with nothing more than a blanket and a cardboard box to provide shelter. It’s all part of a program called “Project Empathy.”

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Math teacher and Project Coordinator Anne Hill explained, “Project Empathy is a night, with the middle school here at All Saints Episcopal, where all of the students come and we participate in some kind of simulation.”

Despite this being a very mild winter in North Texas, the experience was still an eye-opener for students like 8th grader Addie Thompson. “It breaks our hearts for the people who are less fortunate and the people who don’t get to go home to what we get to go home to,” she said.

This year’s project focused on the plight of refugees. Before going outside for the night students heard from a 15-year-old boy who came to the U.S. from Burma when he was 13, leaving his family behind.

The students also wrote welcome letters that will be delivered to other refugees. All Saints Middle School Principal Michael Gonzalez said the experience sticks with the young people well beyond their middle school years. “We have several high school students here helping us, because it was such an impact for them during their time in the middle school.”

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Gonzalez said there is a need for “servant leadership” and it’s important children be taught compassion at an early age. He said, “Empathy does not start in the 7th and 8th grade. It starts at home when they’re infants.”

Even though Thompson is just 14-years-old she seemed to grasp some of the issues the homeless go through on a daily basis. “We will go inside if it’s a little bit below freezing, but they don’t get to go inside.”

And homelessness isn’t some far away problem for the students. Some 1,985 homeless people were identified during the 2016 homeless count for people in Tarrant and Parker County. That number was up 3.7-percent from the previous year.

This is the 10th year All Saints students have participated in Project Empathy. But Hill said the learning doesn’t stop when the children go inside to all the creature comforts. “We will have a time of reflection, of prayer, and to really think about what we have learned tonight and to see how can one person make a difference in the world.”

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