CHAMPAIGN — Don't just think of One Winter Night as a shivering downtown sleep-out.
It's an experience that could change your life, says the new executive director of C-U at Home, Rob Dalhaus III.
The next One Winter Night — C-U at Home's annual fundraiser that challengespeople to sleep outside for a night in refrigerator boxes — is coming up Feb. 2, but sign-ups for participants and event helpers are already under way.
Dalhaus still remembers the impact his first year sleeping outside in one of those boxes had on him. You start out thinking you have to make it 12 hours in the cold. Then it hits you that it's not just 12 hours for some people without homes — it's every day.
"It was very powerful for me," he recalled.
This will be the seventh annual One Winter Night, and C-U at Home hopes to raise $230,000 — enough to cover two-thirds of its budget for next year.
Each person (or group) signing up to sleep out in boxes along Neil Street in downtown Champaign is asked to raise $1,000 in pledges for the organization.
Dalhaus first joined C-U at Home in 2016 as its managing director. Before that, he was the supervisor of the TIMES Center transitional housing program for homeless men in Champaign. He became executive director of C-U at Home just months ago, after the agency's founder and former head, Melany Jackson, moved to Colorado.
A 28-year-old St. Joseph native and married father of two, Dalhaus didn't set out for the career he has now. He got a degree in psychology and thought he would likely work in business after college, he said.
"God had other plans," he said.
Dalhaus recalled taking to heart what someone advised him when he took over the executive director job: That was to remember he's not a provider. He's a servant.
C-U at Home's most visible mission is its Phoenix daytime drop-in center for the homeless at 34 E. Green St., C. It also operates a six-bed recovery house for men, a two-bed house for women and a small house for a family where people can stay 6-12 months.
Dalhaus said he and his colleagues strive to empower rather than enable the people who come for help.
"Every little bit of success that you see, you can enjoy it and hold onto every moment of it," he said.
Successes tend to come in small steps, like someone staying sober for one day, rather than big steps forward, he said.
"It's about what you can do to help them succeed today," Dalhaus said.
He loves that there's a lot of community focus on homelessness during the winter, but he'd like to see this become a four-season issue.
"I'd like homelessness to be a 365-days-a-year topic," he said.
As in years past, he and others at C-U at Home will strive to make One Winter Night 2018 an educational event rather than just a fund-raiser. It's open to the public, and there will be speakers on different aspects of homelessness and a screening of C-U at Home's documentary, "The Phoenix: Hope is Rising."
For the 2017 One Winter Night, 243 people slept out in boxes and hundreds more helped with the event. The organization is about one-third of the way there for the participants it will need for the 2018 event, Dalhaus said.
"There's room for you," he said. "That's what I'd tell people."