Krystal Wakefield, Education major at Corban University, just finished working on a lesson plan for her student teaching before rushing to a dorm lobby and into the stress-ridden world of her new job at the mortgage company. In only one hour, she sought out families for payment and even had to evict some to live on the streets. Wakefield had preparation time to understand her task as families came to her to pay their bills. She was playing the role in a simulation exercise that took place at Corban University on Feb. 28.
The poverty simulation exercise was a part of an hour-long activity to help students understand the day-to-day life of low-income families. Corban’s Community Life Team (CLT) and CoActive Connections organized the event. Approximately 50 students and community members participated. Participants received packets that included their biographies and items such as Social Security cards, disability checks, and food stamp card.
Surrounding them were meeting tables that represented pit stops: The homeless shelter. The bank. The grocery store. The pawn shop. Working in family units, each group had to figure out how to make it through a month. One week, in the simulation, lasted fifteen minutes.
For Wakefield, the reality of poverty hit home. She works with many young students and has heard stories about couch surfing and temporarily living in motels because their families can’t pay the electricity bill.
“This is real,” she said. “They feel this stress. It’s hard on these kids.”
Some participants played the role of children. Megan Harper played a teenage daughter whose main source of income was her brother’s drug dealing.
Even though her family was relieved when her brother went to jail in the simulation and decided to stop selling drugs, “we struggled financially since we had relied on that income,” she said. “It showed the harsh reality of why people get into that.”
Ben Pearson, the director of student programs at Corban, said it was important for students to acknowledge the challenges many of those around them face.
“The purpose was to step outside of self,” he said. “It gives us a glimpse of what lives of other people are like.”
Lori Beamer, the director of operation and outreach at CoActive was most impressed with the depth of processing during the debrief from the students.
“To me, it revealed an authentic caring compassion,” she said.
Executive Director, Melinda Gross, was also impressed by the participation of the students.
“A lot of people have resistance to this,” she said. “Here, people seemed very open. [Poverty] is a scary thing – the people who came today were brave.”
Gross and Beamer have seen resistance toward the simulation as they travel and put it on for a variety of organizations.
“People are resistant because they experience poverty and don’t want to re-experience it or don’t see the relevance to their life,” Gross said. “They can’t apply the simulation to their life but after they do it they realize it affects everything. You may not experience poverty directly but you’re being influenced indirectly by it.”
The two look it at simply: “By raising the bar, everyone prospers.”
CoActive currently uses material from Missouri Association for Community Action (MACA) to run the simulation. The family stories are based on real stories from families in Missouri. The non-profit is currently seeking sponsors to help in their goal to create material that is more relevant to Oregon, including the struggle of a language barrier.
Despite aspects that CoActive wants to improve, it was a powerful experience.
“The whole atmosphere of the stress and discouragement felt real,” Rachel Smith said.
And it is real.
Approximately 43 percent of Salem residents live below the poverty level. About 10 percent of Corban students come from families who currently live below the line.
For Tessa Carver, the simulation left her “in so many pieces.” Being the only provider in her family unit, “the struggle to pick up any bit of hope was real,” she said.
Linda Troyer was the provider at Interfaith Ministries and oversaw the homeless shelter. Although she was able to provide helpful items while many service providers merely took money to pay off bills, it was difficult when she realized she couldn’t provide everything.
“You try your best but you can only make a small dent,” she said. “There are a lot of different aspects. One person can’t fix it all.”
For Troyer, the simulation opened her eyes to the way her family had been stable financially.
“I’m more thankful for that now than I was before the simulation,” she said.
“I felt the simulation was a success,” CLT member Angel Prideaux said. “I was a grocer and able to observe the interactions from afar. I observed a simulation, but saw the implications of real life poverty: stress, lack of time, eviction, a week without groceries, neglect and isolation.”
Prideaux also saw hope.
“I saw neighbors and friends buying groceries for one another, a mom taking the time to ask her daughter about her day, despite anxiety of where their meal will come from.”
The ultimate goal of the exercise is for Corban students to apply their feelings from the simulation directly in service to those in poverty.