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Role-playing poverty simulation not a game

Monday, September 25, 2017  
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Brainerd Dispatch (September 25, 2017) - The Brainerd area has traditionally been a vacation destination with lakeside resorts aplenty and golf courses to spare, but below the surface of its well-heeled lake homes lurks a serious problem.


More than 11 percent of those in Crow Wing County live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and almost 22 percent of those in Brainerd fall below the poverty line.


See a video of the simulation.


"When you are living a comfortable life, it's easy to forget what people who are less fortunate are struggling with," said Jennifer Smith, executive director of United Way of Crow Wing and Southern Cass Counties.


Volunteers took part in a role-playing exercise Thursday at First Lutheran Church to help them understand the struggles that come with being poor by immersing them in real-life situations.


"Our hope is to inspire empathy and compassion for those in our community who are living with and struggling with poverty," Smith said of United Way's kickoff of its annual fundraising campaign last week. "When we have that compassion, then hopefully we are inspired to action."


"The Poverty Simulation" seeks to break down stereotypes by allowing participants to step into the life of someone dealing with the complex and interconnected issues that the poor face. The goal is for participants to gain a greater appreciation of these issues at the end.


"It can be easy when you are not experiencing it to pass judgment ... or to think there's blame involved or laziness involved and many, many times, that is not the case. It is incredibly difficult to live in poverty. And a hand up out of poverty is often the best thing we can give," Smith said.


Participants were assigned roles drawn from real life, such as an elderly person who must find a way to pay for both utilities and medication, or a single parent with limited resources and no transportation who has to get to work and drop off a child in day care.


Jessica Haapajoki was assigned the role of a 42-year-old man who has a full-time job, a stay-at-home wife and two children, but the family of four is living beyond their means.


"I think poverty is something that we know is in our community, but sometimes we wear blinders, so we don't see it," said Haapajoki, principal of Brainerd Learning Center. "I deal with students each and every day that they don't know where they are going to sleep that night or where their next meal will come from."


The simulation was hosted locally for the first time by the United Way of Crow Wing and Southern Cass Counties and was sponsored by Mid-Minnesota Federal Credit Union.

"I think poverty is something that we look at all the time, which is how can we help our community," said Missy Borg, a credit union employee who acted as a grocer in the simulation.


The three-hour simulation at the church was intended to be an eye-opening experience, despite the game-like nature of the props—such as the fake currency that was exchanged—that belie the seriousness of the real-life situations participants were confronted with by being poor.


"Other participants are given identities ... what their income is, what they have to do, where they have to be, and every 15 minutes of this simulation is equivalent to a week in real life, so we are basically taking them through a full month of what it's like to live in poverty," Smith said.


Jill Carlson is the director of training and community relations for Mid-Minnesota Federal Credit Union and was the facilitator of Thursday's simulation.


"About 66 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and are only one financial emergency from financial devastation," Carlson told participants at the Brainerd church. "And 19 percent of Americans reported they spent more than they earned last year."


Church tables were set up to represent city hall, jail, a hospital, a bank, a bus station, an employer and a pawn shop, for example, and were also staffed by role-playing volunteers, such as those from Central Lakes College.


"That corner over there, those people are starting off in a homeless shelter, and they have about two weeks to get out, to find jobs ... while some of you have homes or live in apartments. ... Some of you have vehicles, some of you don't," Carlson announced before the simulation.


"Each time you visit a community resource, you have to provide—whether it's a bus pass if you don't have a car or a transportation pass—to prove that you got there, or they cannot service you. ... If I'm bringing my child to school, I need to have two bus passes to drop them off."


"The Poverty Simulation" has been used by educators, customer service groups, health care professionals, social service providers, elected officials, corporations, community organizations and college students, according to Smith.


"We're hoping to inspire a little bit more compassion and a little bit more empathy for your neighbors, your friends, your community members, your co-workers—whomever it may be," Smith told participants. "Our mission is to mobilize the caring power of our community."

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