Role play of poverty offers life lessons

Friday, July 23, 2004

A grandmother, raising a 9-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl, begged time off of her part-time job to cash a check at the local bank.

However, she didn't make it to the bank. Without transportation to get there, she couldn't cover the distance. So she stopped to exchange her check for transportation tickets at Quick Cash, where she paid a charge for the tickets and another for cashing the check all while the friendly employee behind the counter overcharged her.

For Joy Bell, this was reality only in Realtown, a poverty simulation at the Cape Area Family Resource Center on Thursday. The simulation was performed by the East Missouri Action Agency for groups who help poverty-stricken people.

Gretchen Weber, community services representative at the Cape Girardeau office for the agency, said 50 invitations were sent, but only seven people participated: Jeanne and John Long from Centenary United Methodist Church, Roy Jones and Natalie Sandoval from the Community Caring Council, Bell and Kerrie Lintner of the Safe House for Women and Sister Theresa Davey of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.

Weber said the simulation benefits these individuals in providing help and support for the poor.

"It gives them a better understanding of what those individuals go through," Weber said. "But, with a larger group, it is more representative of all those people who do come through their centers."

The simulation, which was the regional agency's first in Cape Girardeau County, helped to commemorate 40 years of service by the Missouri Community Action Agencies.

The regional agency's first simulation was May 20 in Park Hills, Mo., and had 45 participants, said Keri McCrorey, agency community services director.

Bell said she was surprised to see the low turnout for the Cape Girardeau simulation.

"It was poorly attended by this community that claims to be so Christian and caring," Bell said.

Bell thought the simulation was enlightening and could help all employees at the Safe House. "Many of the people we help are going through this for the first time and don't know all the help that is there," Bell said. "This experience is beneficial for us to better help and serve them."

The Longs also said the simulation will be helpful in future interactions with people living in poverty.

"It helps to really appreciate what they go through," John Long said, before his wife, Jeanne, interrupted him.

"It helps, not to appreciate the situation, but it helps to feel the frustration that they go through," Jeanne Long said.

Even though Realtown was not real, the adults in the simulation soon showed frustration at the difficult decisions of paying a utility bill or purchasing food even while being taken advantage of when cashing checks.

Time crunch

Sandoval said the game was frustrating in the time limit placed on the families.

A week was 10 minutes and a weekend three minutes. The simulated time frame was one month. And participants felt real pressure.

They had to work, go to the bank, the Quick Cash for transportation tickets, and to utility and mortgage companies. They also needed to stop by the local supermarket. But Bell and Sandoval, who played grandparents, did not make it to the store the first two weeks. And the Longs, pretending to be an unmarried couple living together, never purchased food during the four-week game.

"It was frustrating in trying to work full time, and you still can't meet all the ends," Sandoval said. "You don't have time to access all the help that is available and that you need."

Bell said the frustrations she felt during the simulation give her a better understanding of real-life situations.

"The experience makes the short tempers of poverty-stricken folks more understandable and the illegal activities that happen more understandable," Bell said.

Angela Swoboda, a single mother of three who uses Action Agency services, volunteered to help with the simulation. She said it was accurate.

"I think it opened their eyes to what we go through and the tribulations we face," Swoboda said. "It is very challenging as a single parent and the stress level rises."

While the simulation was effective in showcasing the difficulties faced by the poor, there is room for improvement.

"One critique is that as playing a child, I didn't feel the pressures that the parents had," Jones said, adding that he would make children imaginary and have all participants serve as adults.

Jones also said that the game did not place the participants in a real enough situation.

"The best simulation would be to be thrown into a big city for a weekend with little money," Jones said. "There you have the true fear of having nothing."

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