Events Archive

2015 Events

Poverty Simulation at Independence Junior/Senior High

School staff learn about poverty first hand

By John Klotzbach

INDEPENDENCE – According to a recent report from the Iowa Department of Education, 41 percent of Iowa students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, which is up 27 percent from 12 years ago. Closer to home, according to the 2011 Kids Count Data Book (the most recent edition available) published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 32.5 percent of Buchanan County students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch which is up 36.9 percent from the year 2000. Also in 2011, 9.5 percent of families in Buchanan County were receiving food assistance. This is up 196.3 percent since 2000. Almost 18 percent of children age 0-17 in Buchanan County were living in poverty. That number has increased 24.3 percent since 2000. (For reference: the 2011 poverty level for a family of four was $22,350.)

These statistics were shared by Beth Ownby, community Liaison for Building Direction for Families, Inc. (BDF). BDF is a non-profit agency that provides funding for the Early Childhood Iowa, Decategorization, Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, and Community Based Child Abuse Prevention initiatives in Buchanan, Delaware, and Fayette Counties. Ownby partnered with Deb Donlea of the Independence Community School District and Amanda Hohmann, Special Projects Coordinator with Operation: New View Community Action Agency in Dubuque to coordinate a Poverty Simulation for the teachers and staff at the Jr / Sr High School a couple of weeks ago.

According to materials supplied by Ownby, the Poverty Simulation is a unique, interactive experience that helps people begin to understand what life is like with a shortage of money and the abundance of stress.

Participants assume the roles of different families facing poverty. Some are newly unemployed, some are homeless, some are recently deserted by the “breadwinner”, and others are receiving assistance - either with or without additional earned income. The task of all “families” is to provide basic necessities and shelter during the course of four 15-minute “weeks.”

The simulation lasts from 2½ to 3 hours. It includes an introduction and a debriefing in which participants and volunteers share their feelings and experiences.

The simulation is conducted in a large room with the “families” seated in the center. Tables around the perimeter of the room represent various community resources and services, including a bank, employment office, a pantry, a school, welfare office, etc. Volunteers, referred to as “staffers” are recruited to represent the community resources.

The poverty simulation experience can be an “eye-opener” to anyone who wishes to understand more about the realities of poverty. The simulation is an effective tool for many audiences including professionals who provide services, educators, religious organizations, students (12th grade or higher), or any other concerned community members.

Although Donlea has been an educator for several years and has worked with impoverished families and at-risk children, this was her first Poverty Simulation.

“My goal was to have the staff be better aware of what kids and parents go through at home,” she said. “I was hoping to see the staff be more compassionate towards a student’s situation and to feel more comfortable to connect students and their families with resources.”

Donlea illustrated her point with the story of Simulation Volunteer Tim McGinnis. McGinnis played the role of a corrupt Police Officer based on his own experiences growing up in a large Iowa city where drug deals and shootings happened on the block where he lived.

“He survived with the help of teachers,” said Donlea. They helped him with homework, looked out for his best interests, and even supplied him a winter coat.”

McGinnis is now completing his education and training to work in the Juvenile Court system.

Independence Ag Instructor and FFA sponsor Rachael Emig was part of a family that McGinnis’ character visited.

“I played Melinda, a 39-year old mother,” said Emig. “My husband Miles was played by John Goedken. Our daughter was played by David Lang and Michael Doyle played the mother-in law.

“Our family started with $0 cash, a single disability check of $300 and nearly $1,000 in bills for a single month. Over the course of a simulated month our family lost a job, applied for multiple jobs, finally had two reliable jobs, applied for food stamps, haggled at the bank for loan extensions, pawned valuable items to pay bills, made some questionable decisions and worked relentlessly to try and keep our “family” above water. We ended the month with all of our bills paid for and some cash to spare. We made it, but it could have easily gone the other direction.

“The family that I was a part of experienced a very interesting situation where we were approached by law enforcement to be taken to jail for an accused crime," said Emig. "After much negotiation and multiple threatening encounters, in total, our family gave over $100 cash and a piece of jewelry to keep the cop on our side and to keep us out of jail. This situation was extremely difficult for me to take seriously during the simulation. I frequently found myself not being able to control my laughter, I thought it was ridiculous. At the conclusion of the simulation, the cop [McGinnis] told how the exact situation he played was real for him growing up in Davenport. I’ll admit to maybe being a little naive when it comes to these situations, but that portion of the simulation really hit me.

“I felt that the Poverty Simulation went great!” said Emig. “It was a well organized event that allowed each of us involved to put ourselves in the “shoes” of some of the families in our community or students that we teach on a daily basis. This is often uncomfortable for many people to face, but it is a reality and it was beyond valuable to be put in that perspective for just an hour. We had some great community volunteers that took on the appropriate attitudes of the roles they played, which made the simulation all the more realistic.

“This was the second poverty simulation I had experienced, each time I walked away with different feelings, conclusions and perspective. This simulation concluded with some of the best discussion amongst faculty that I have experienced so far this school year. We are fortunate to live in a community with so many assets and strong support but that does not mean that challenges do no exist amongst many families.

"I believe that Rob Arnold said something along the lines that we (teachers) are constantly expecting that students should work for us, finish assignments for us and come to school always ready to learn from us," said Emig. "When in reality, certain students may be in a situation where school is not on their list of priorities once they step out of this building due to the large amount of responsibility the may hold at home. It is so easy to go through your individual motions in a day without giving thought to the lives or the struggles of anyone around you. I feel like everyone needs an occasional adjustment in perspective, the poverty simulation was a great tool to do that.”

Another shady character was portrayed by Amber Hunt of ABCM Rehabilitaion Independence.

“My character was to find ways to encourage illegal activity among those who were struggling to make ends meet,” said Hunt. “ I would circle the groups looking for opportunities where they may not have everything they needed to survive the month. If they were fighting for “bus passes” I would offer them black market bus passes at half off. If they needed money to pay the rent I would ask if they would deliver covert packages, no questions asked - cash in return.

“It was not my impression that people shared their act of desperation with others. I had to constantly be looking for the next victim to pull into my black market business. Some reacted with horror at the suggestion of illegal activity. No amount of desperation was going to convince them that I might be of service to them. By the 4th session (week 4, last week of the month) I was approached by a (simulated) young mother and her 1-year old child who were having trouble cashing a disability check from the government. I was able to buy their $500 check for less than half the value in cash.

“I was impressed with the IHS in-service planning committee for tackling a subject that is often ignored, but so prevalent,” said Hunt. “While an afternoon of simulated poverty barely scrapes the surface of the challenges families face in our community; I think the frustration and barriers were well represented and understood by both the IHS staff and volunteers.”

Doug Cook, Independence Fire Chief and Building Code Enforcer also participated. His character ran the local pawn shop.

“It was a interesting simulation to say the least,” said Cook. “It was steady business throughout the simulation with a lot of repeat customers. They were either trading for goods or stealing them. I was also selling guns. I only had two inquiries on them, but no one could obtain a permit to purchase one. I was asked to sell one under the counter by one of the customers.

“Also, I was a drug dealer. I don’t know how many people were asked to deliver drugs, but only had two attempted to, with one of those being arrested and spending time in jail.”

Shalon Frye, Junior High Counselor, played the teacher, complete with a classroom, students and tests. The test were real questions about poverty statistics for the “students”. She said there were not many high scores.

“The Poverty Simulation was very interesting,” said Frye. “I thought some of what we saw was very close to what happens in real life. It was very interesting to see how annoyed people got when they had to wait in long lines to speak to people at social services or to speak to someone at the bank or utility company, both of which could be very real scenarios. I also thought it was interesting to see people’s reactions to a “naughty child” while they were waiting in line. You can imagine how stressed parents are when they don’t have childcare and have to take their child (or children) with them everywhere.”

One of the “students” was Brandon Krusey, Social Studies teacher and Head Football Coach. Like many of the assigned characters, Krusey was asked to play someone completely different than himself.

“The poverty simulation was a real eye-opening experience for many members of our school staff,” he said. “My personal experience, becoming a pregnant 17-year old girl, was definitely something a different experience than I have ever had before.”

Krusey was given a “sympathy” pillow to wear under his shirt to simulate the weight and size of a near term baby.

“Being a father of three young girls, I do have to give my wife Amber a lot of credit for having the toughness it takes to carry a baby for nine months. I had enough after 2 1/2 hours. During the simulation I was able to experience some of the frustration that many people have to deal with daily. Things like being treated different at school, trying to help a struggling family pay bills and the worrying if you have going to have things to eat or a place to stay. The volunteers and presenters that came to put on this simulation did a tremendous job and all of us left the afternoon with a different view of students in our classrooms and the situations that some face.”

Hohmann, who provided a kit with all of the name tags, back stories, instructions and “official” forms, led the debriefing at the end of the simulation.

“It was tough at first to get people to share,” she said. “Then one volunteer and one staff participant spoke up and it led to a more serious conversation. It will take time for the participants to process what they encountered, maybe a couple of months.

“I think we opened the staff’s minds for a couple of hours. Participant’s lifestyles were turned upside down. They now have a better understanding of how students live in this world. They learned parents do what they can. Students sometimes don’t get homework done and parents are not there to check.”

“Poverty can not be ended in one day,” said Hohmann. “but the more support for the family, the more likely the family and student will succeed.”

After the simulation Donlea sent out a very personal thank-you memo to the volunteers and the staff for their participation.

“To our staff,” she wrote. “You also did a great job embracing your roles. I hope you all felt the simulation was worth while and took away, if even it was small, a sense of what living in poverty can be like for the students and families in our district.

“During our ending discussion yesterday, it was mentioned how many families aren’t aware of the numerous resources available to them and what they can do to make life a little easier for those who struggle. If you ever have a student/family who may be in this situation please do not hesitate to talk to your counselors or myself. We will do our best to help these families.

“Finally, I leave you with this. As many of you know, I lost my dad before Christmas. For those who didn’t know my dad, which seems kind of crazy because he seemed to know EVERYONE, he was one of the most encouraging, outgoing, inspiring people I will every know. As I received condolences or shared stories with friends, former students/wrestlers at his visitation and sat in the East Buchanan School gym at his funeral, I sat with hundreds of people whose lives had been touched by one man, my dad. He left a legacy. What will your legacy be?”

For more information or to schedule a simulation, please contact Building Direction for Families at 319-334-5105 or by email: