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Seminar gives leaders 'well-rounded' view of poverty

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By Janet Robb

TELL CITY - Yohan Yarrow is a 7-year-old boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and even though his grandfather works full time and his grandmother part time, they might not have enough money to cover the medicine he needs this month.

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Across town, Robert Roger is a single father who drops off his 3-year-old son Roland at a day-care center before going to work to support his three children and pay bills.

These situations were just two of the many community and business members and county and city officials experienced during a one-day poverty simulation at Evangelical United Church of Christ May 7.

The simulation was part of Bridges Out of Poverty, a seminar designed for professionals and community members who serve, employ or supervise people who experience generational poverty. Seminar attendees investigated a mental model of poverty, reviewed poverty research and analyzed poverty by considering hidden rules of class, resources, family structure and language.

During the simulation, participants were divided into groups where each group represented a family in poverty. The groups were provided with family profiles, which included the makeup of the family, information about employment or lack thereof, bills that needed to be paid, transportation and what property they own.

They lived one "month" as a family with every 15 minutes representing a week. During that time they had to feed their family, seek work or go to work, pay bills, take their children to school and take care of the household in general. Various businesses were set up, including a grocery store, bank, school, day care, utility company, family services and pawn shop.

"The concept is to simulate a family in poverty as much as possible and what they go through," said Kat Isbell, Bridges Collaborative Group of Southern Indiana advisory group member, adding that once each group receives their family packet, they don't tell them how to manage their family. For a family in poverty, it's hard to plan ahead and anticipate problems, she said.

To simulate that, she said they go to each family and have them draw a "chance" card that may require the family to deal with unplanned circumstance like a death in the family where they have to pay for funeral expenses.

"The whole concept is to encourage the participants to think about poverty in a different way," Isbell said. "To help raise the understanding and have people think with the hand and mind."

Bill Borders said his family consisted of a mother with two children whose father left them with only $10. He portrayed a 14-year-old boy. The family didn't have enough money to pay rent, utilities and other items because the mother was spending most of her time at agencies trying to get help, so she wasn't able to look for a job, he said. To help, he started baby-sitting other kids to make extra money, which was used to buy groceries.

"In our family there was total frustration trying to access help in the system," Borders said. "As a group it gave us a unique perspective of the obstacles of generational poverty."

It was amazing to see all of the different groups there take part in the seminar, he said, adding that they should be commended.

There were many challenges her family had to face, said Tell City Mayor Barbara Ewing. The family her group portrayed was that of grandparents raising grandchildren.

Her family ran into problems when they ran out of money to purchase medication for Ewing's persona, a boy with ADHD. "It was very frustrating just to get help," she said, adding, "we had to look at priorities and there was only so much money to go around."

The seminar put an additional perspective on poverty and being there and living it firsthand was invaluable, she added.

During the afternoon session, Ewing said they discussed the hidden traits of wealthy, middle-class and poverty-stricken people. "What may be a challenge for one group, might not be for another," she said. The experience was worthwhile and she hopes to offer the workshop in the future to other groups who could benefit from the experience.

Isbell said there are four goals to the seminar - to improve the level of understanding about the experience of poverty for community members who work with low-income people and empower community leaders to identify and respond to current practices that contribute to the prevalence of poverty within the community. Other goals were to empower businesses to understand the experience of poverty and how to retain employees trying to break out of poverty and empower people who experience poverty with resources and or tools for exploring opportunities once considered out of reach in order to become self-sufficient.

After the seminar, participants filled out comment sheets about their experience. One person said, "The services were so spread out and not conducive to the client."

Another said "I was very angry and felt like a failure at the end of the simulation. I was stressed and it gave me a good understanding of what people go through. (It) gave me a look of what it might be like for some of my clients." One last participant said the experience showed "participants that having limited resources is hard, especially for those of us who do not live in poverty and who are middle class."

About four or five years ago, Louann Oberhausen said she did a similar program at William Tell Elementary School about poverty in the classroom and believes the community will benefit from the models expressed in the program. The simulation and seminar are a "clever way to get people involved from different points of view," she said. "It gave me a more well-rounded view."

The workshop curriculum showed participants that people who are wealthy, in the middle class or in poverty experience situations in different ways and also value different things. For instance, Oberhausen said, people in poverty believe relationships are more important while achievements are a higher priority for middle-class people and influence is important to the wealthy.

"When trying to help people in poverty, we can't just look at the people who are on welfare," she said. "We have to look at the working poor because they're doing all they can do."

Like the other groups, Oberhausen said she also felt frustrated during the experience. "It takes a lot to break the cycle of poverty."