Feature Story

Hundreds of Cisco employees sleep outside for homeless youth

Cisco and Covenant House raise close to $2 million for the nonprofit.

In November 2019, 646 Cisco employees used sleeping bags and cardboard boxes to sleep outside across 13 cities in North America, including Atlanta, Vancouver, Chicago, New York City, and San Jose. This annual “Sleep Out” event asks participants to spend one night sleeping outside to raise funds for nonprofit organization Covenant House and show solidarity with those in need.

Cisco is a dedicated partner of Covenant House, an organization whose main goal is to help young people facing homelessness. The 2018 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual report states that there are over 550,000 homeless people on a given night, more than 11,000 of those are teenagers and young adults. Covenant House helps homeless youth become independent by providing stable and safe housing, medical and mental health care, addiction assistance, education, and job training.

“We’re here because we want to help Covenant House change the lives of homeless teenagers,” says Cisco Senior Vice President of the Americas Global Enterprise Segment Mark Dodds, “Most of these kids did not choose to be homeless and, like all kids, they deserve the chance to accomplish their dreams.”

The Sleep Out: Experiences from employees

In cities across North America on Sleep Out night, Cisco employees lit candles, sang, heard from Covenant House leaders, residents and alumni, and bonded with their colleagues.

“The Sleep Out event was so special and amazing,” says communications lead for CX Americas Lindy Bartell, “In San Jose we heard from the president of Covenant House and the president of Covenant House California. We also heard the personal stories of two Covenant House Oakland alumni and two current residents. Their stories were so touching—so much strength, hope, and love.”

It’s clear that the Covenant House residents and alumni created deep impact with their personal experiences—stories that truly changed the Sleep Out participants.

“They did something that I will probably remember for the rest of my life: They brought a couple of Covenant house alumni and current residents on stage,” says IoT manager Mirko Graebel. “They shared their stories of what happened to them when they were children: How they got into the most difficult family situations imaginable. Eventually, they all shared how Covenant House saved their lives. It was very inspiring to hear how they not only got back on the right path, but many of them are now fighting for a better world in different ways.”

For San Jose participant Tyler Moselle, the indoor presentations and the night outside proved to be a huge contrast.

“I loved the contrast between the hopeful indoor event and sleeping on the cold street,” says Digital Employee Newsroom Editor Moselle. “It was profoundly moving to hear from Covenant House alumni and residents. It was the most inspirational aspect—their backstories, their struggles from an early age, how they discovered ‘the Cov’, every ounce of their optimism, and the gravity of their perspective. I loved hearing from Tiffany, Anthony, Anica, Montel. Their stories were raw, emotional, and impossible to ignore.”

As the night progressed, employees prepared their outdoor spots for sleep. CX Director Larry Kaufman from Michigan’s Sleep Out event shares that the night outside was a difficult one.

“The sleepout was about survival until morning,” says Kaufman. “It was raining and windy and got colder at about 2:30 in the morning. The noises of the night were very evident. At 5 a.m., we were woken up, served a breakfast and left. I was able to go back to my hotel and take a shower and rest on a bed. I slept outside for five hours then went back to my normal life… Those who are homeless get up and repeat this every day. I am thankful that there is a place like Covenant House where youth can get the support and love they so desperately need and deserve."

Humble origins

Cisco came to be a dedicated partner of Covenant House in a unique way. Many corporate partnerships with nonprofit organizations emerge from the executive level, but this particular union was a grassroots employee initiative.

In 2016, three Cisco employees from across the United States realized that they were all seperately involved with Covenant House. They then joined forces to spread the word about the nonprofit amongst their Cisco peers. From 2016 to 2018, participation grew from 43 sleepers in four cities to 148 sleepers in nine cities. This year, with the leadership and support of SVP of Corporate Affairs Tae Yoo and Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas, the company’s participation grew to more than 600 sleepers across 13 cities and raised close to $2 million for Covenant House. In each city, Cisco team captains recruited colleagues to participate, prepared them for what to expect at the Sleep Out, and helped them with their fundraising campaigns.  

“This Cisco Sleep Out movement started in one city, within one group," says account manager Leah Rayburn, "We knew that to really make an impact, we had to cross job functions and geographies, and find a leader (Mark Dodds) who could motivate from the ground up. One of the greatest side effects of this movement has been the creation of an Americas wide network, using Webex Teams to connect, share ideas, and create some friendly competition on fundraising goals."

“This started as a grassroots movement,“ says Dodds. “The more people learned about it and got involved, the more they asked their colleagues and friends and family to get involved. It's become this really wonderful snowball and cycle of goodness.”

Gaining momentum

As the work of Covenant House becomes increasingly more widespread across Cisco, each year there are more first-time participants of the Sleep Out.

“When asked how many of us were first-time Sleep Out participants, I was floored as I looked around at all the hands that shot up with mine,” says Moselle.

And an increase in participants is crucial, since it signifies more money being raised for Covenant House. 

Bartell says that her own plan for next year’s Sleep Out is to increase her funds raised from $2,000 to $5,000.

“My empathy for the homeless has grown,” says Bartell. “I’m already excited to participate again next year! It’s such a worthy cause.”

Leaders, employees, and Cisco community members walked away from the event touched. Powerful stories, times of bonding, and a first-hand experience brought Cisco’s culture of giving to life. You can stay up to date and donate to Covenant House by checking out the Sleep Out page here


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