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by By Loren G. Edelstein | December 01, 2011
It's not often that a team-building event involves panhandling by day and spending the night outside in a cardboard box, but those were key components of a two-day program held this October by Aeroplan, the membership rewards division of Aimia (formerly Carlson Marketing). The primary objective for the annual Aeroplan Days event: to raise awareness about the plight of homeless youth in Montreal and create a life-changing experience for participants.

Montreal-based Atmosphere Event Communications was asked to provide suggestions. "After many years of working with this client and embracing their culture, we knew we could present an idea that would most definitely push the envelope and engage an audience, emotionally and physically," says Atmosphere president and chief innovator Jason Katz.

Atmosphere developed a program that began with an invite directing employees to a website that would allow them to learn about the event and create personal fund-raising pages. The agenda was largely a mystery, but participants were told they would have the option of sleeping out for the night in a parking lot in front of Montreal's Bell Centre. The rest would be revealed throughout the course of the program.

A learning experience
The journey began on Oct. 11, 2011, as 330 employees from Aeroplan were transferred to an undisclosed location in the heart of an industrial sector of Montreal. The space was decorated with a 40-foot graffiti wall designed by street kids, black-and-white images of homeless children and teens, and posters showing key facts about the problem.

The next 24 hours were spent learning about life on the streets, with the guidance of a local organization, Dans la rue, formed in 1988 to help young people without a home.

"We brought Aeroplan and Dans la rue together and created an experience where employees would live a day in the life of a homeless person," says Katz. "We put the employees through a series of activities that helped them tune into the harsh feelings and unfortunate realities that some of these people face each day."

Employees were eased into the experience through a series of inspirational presentations. Aki Tchitacov, executive director of Dans la rue, presented the organization and its aim. A motivational presentation delivered by Joe Roberts (the "Skid Row CEO"), a former street kid himself, spoke about his struggles to survive on the streets and how he overcame adversity, setting the tone for the day.

For their first challenge, employees donned rubber gloves and hairnets and collectively produced an impressive 1,000 sandwiches in 10 minutes. These sandwiches were then handed out to street kids by the foundation.