Extension providing help and hope through poverty simulation
Thursday, August 23, 2018
Comanche County resident Liz McChesney knew poverty existed where she lives and works. She didn’t understand the seriousness of the issue or how she could make it better, but she wanted to find out.
That desire drew her to a poverty simulation recently organized by the Salvation Army of Lawton and led by a team of trained Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension family and consumer sciences educators.
“I wanted to see the severity of it here in Lawton and I wanted to find out how I could help more and how our organization could get more involved,” said McChesney, who works for the Armed Services YMCA in the Lawton area. “That was very eye-opening to realize how stressful it is, how scary it is. It’s frightening.”
That was the point of the simulation. To give participants the chance to slip into the shoes of those living on the poverty line and walk around long enough to feel the sting and pinch limited-resource families endure every day.
Many of the simulation’s nearly 60 participants and volunteers who crowded into the Comanche County Fairgrounds Annex Building in Lawton on July 19 were from social service organizations or served as community advocates. But a newspaper journalist, city government official and candidate running for office also flavored the mix.
“We wanted people who are used to maybe sitting on the other side of the desk to come and see what it’s like to be in that situation,” said Debra Johnson, poverty initiatives coordinator for the Salvation Army of Lawton, which services Comanche and Stephens counties.
Johnson said it’s important to bring together a variety of community voices to address poverty, including limited-resource families who can lend a face to the issue as well as individuals and organizations that can be a force for positive change.
“That’s why we’re so excited OSU Extension came to offer this with us and partner with us, just bringing more collaboration,” she said. “It’s really all about your resources. In a community like this, if we’re able to come together to see where some of the gaps are, then maybe we can fill those gaps with resources. That’s why we’re here.”
Poverty is an especially critical issue for Comanche County, home of one of the state’s largest urban areas and where, according to U.S. Census data, the poverty rate hovers above 16 percent compared to about 12 percent nationally.
Make no mistake, though, limited-resource families are living in both rural and urban communities across Oklahoma.
Susan Routh, area coordinator for the Comanche Unit, Community Nutrition Education Programs, said Extension has a responsibility to raise awareness about and provide support for limited-resource families, as well as help communities find ways to assist struggling families.
“We know poverty exists in Oklahoma and many times those families are living next door to others who have more than enough,” she said. “Once families begin to struggle, it begins to reach into other parts of the community. Then communities have an obligation to help struggling families access needed resources to regain their standing.”
Developed by the Missouri Community Action Network, the simulation features realistic scenarios faced by families living in poverty.
During the activity, participants were divided into families; selected for roles; and given a detailed explanation of their circumstances, including ages, employment status, health issues, educational level, income and monthly expenses.
The challenge? Navigating one month – the equivalent of four 15-minute “weeks” in the simulation – as limited-resource families.
“They had a number of tasks to perform, like paying bills, going to school and going to work. Their job was to make those decisions given the limited resources they have living in poverty,” Routh said.
Participants visited different stations representing places people often go to accomplish everyday activities, such as a general employer, school, utility and mortgage companies, bank, grocery store, social services and even the pawn shop and jail.
For an added slice of reality, some families were evicted from their homes during the simulation, while others lived in the homeless shelter and some got swept up in illegal activity – either inadvertently or on purpose – in a bid to survive.
Participants Tina Alley and Karenid Rosario role played a bread-winning father and an unemployed mother, respectively.
Alley said during the activity, she struggled to work full-time, which meant spending more than half of each 15-minute week at the general employer, and fit in other necessities such as going to the bank.
“As a single mom, I feel that way anyway, but it really was just stressful to see what had to be done,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rosario said it was stressful and shocking what people do in these kinds of situations.
“We were being evicted out of the house. This lady just appeared offering a job and we all saw it as a good opportunity, but I got caught and went to jail,” she said, describing some of the hardships she encountered during the simulation. “We don’t know exactly what situation people are going through to end up there. It may not be because they’re bad people, but with the situation, they feel desperate and end up doing things that may not be correct.”
Onreka Johnson, a city councilperson for Ward 7 in Lawton who also oversees a program for youth who are homeless, took on the role of an 85-year-old man trying to access community resources on his own.
She said the simulation was a good reality check and strong reminder to stay humble.
“This is what my kids [in my program] go through. I already have a lot of patience and understanding, but it keeps me humble to know that if they’re frustrated today, let’s try to do something different,” she said, stressing the importance of first seeking to understand then be understood as the late Stephen Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and other popular books.
“That gives us more tolerance for other people. It helps us understand different cultures and brings the community together,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you have to agree, but it means you have at least an understanding of why someone does or doesn’t do something.”
The poverty simulation is available statewide and may be requested by contacting the nearest county Extension office.
Story by Leilana McKindra