It’s Ryan Francois’ largest and most ambitious project yet: constructing a 27.8 foot tall Lego man entirely out of cardboard for the 2013 Reggie’s Sleepout. 

“Move a little bit over to the left; we don’t want the head to tip over, because then we really have a problem,” said Francois, senior in civil engineering, as his colleagues moved the levers of four lifts carrying a giant 8-foot cardboard head.

Every year, people gather at Drake Stadium in Des Moines for Reggie's Sleepout to raise awareness for the homeless youth in the Des Moines area, said Toby O’Berry, director of the Iowa Homeless Youth Centers.

The event is dedicated to Reggie Kelsey, who aged out of foster care in 2001 and was found dead in the Des Moines river a few months later. It raises money for homeless youth and honors Reggie's loss, O'Berry said. 

“About 130 different campers experience homelessness for one night by sleeping out here and construct different shelters," O'Berry said. "Some have tarps and tents, others just bring sleeping bags with them."

There is also a design contest where different groups build different structures and buildings out of cardboard, O'Berry said. 

For this year’s event, eight to 10 ISU students gathered to participate in the contest and raise money for the cause.

“Four years ago, we built a 500-square-foot version of the Iowa capital building,” said Ryan Francois. “So the question was, how could we top this?”

In the end, they decided to build a giant Lego man with multiple stories made to sleep 22 people.

“Everyone keeps asking me where we got the insane idea from, and I really wish I had an answer for that,” Francois said. “I have to admit, at first we didn’t fully grasp how large it would be. Planning the whole thing on paper is one thing, but once you start building it out, you all of a sudden realize, ‘Oh my God, that’s huge.'”

The ISU students teamed up with students of Johnston High School, including Francois’ little brother. Francois said they raised around $6,500 in the process.

“All of our material was donated as well,” Francois said. “We had close to 100 carpet tubes for the main structural frame and a lot of cardboard for the siding and the different levels.”

Francois said the group assembled the different components of the Lego man at a warehouse in Granger, Iowa. They had about eight days, so the team never really had time to think about giving up. 

“This is the whole reason why I study engineering in a nutshell,” said Ryan Betters, junior in civil engineering. “In the classroom, you’re stuck with your piece of paper, but this is actual creativity and going like, ‘Hey, I’m actually doing something.’ It’s amazing.”

Ben Jacobson, graduate in industrial and manufacturing systems, said the most important part is the cause.

“For me, it’s like playing Legos on a huge scale. Also, it’s the least we can do to help homeless kids out on the streets," Jacobson said. "I feel blessed that I can go to Iowa State, and I could never imagine what it’s like being without a home.”

ISU senator Matt McCoy set up his tent right next to the Lego man to observe the construction. 

“It is unlike anything I have ever seen before. All the work those kids put into this and all the money they raised for the good cause; it’s simply marvelous," McCoy said. "That’s exactly what makes Reggie’s so wonderful.”

Apart from the Lego man, other groups showcased their creativity in their own cardboard constructions as well. Boy Scouts, greek chapters and schools built igloos, cars and entire houses.

In the end, Francois’ team and their Lego man won the contest in the category “Best design,” while team AMP (Achieving Maximum Potential) won the overall box contest with a replica of a car. Most members of AMP had lived and slept in a car at some point in their lives. 

“At around 4:30 a.m., rain came down hard, but the spirits of everyone involved stayed up high,” O’Berry said.

To date, the Iowa Homeless Youth Centers has raised about $114,000 for their cause. Donations still will be accepted in the coming months.

“We are very grateful to every group for doing this and making Reggie’s so successful again,” O’Berry said. “Homelessness still is a hidden issue, and it needs to be addressed.”

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