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   from the issue of August 19, 2004

Poverty exercise sparks solutions


Participants adjust their name tags. The labels bear the identity of a fictitious character they will play for the next hour. After examining packets containing meager possessions and money, each "family" begins to strategize how it might survive an entire "month."

Molly Mohrmann, a Central Nebraska Community Services Head Start teacher from Columbus,
 Molly Mohrmann, a Central Nebraska Community Services Head Start teacher from Columbus, "argues" with a clerk, Norma Rodriguez of Columbus, over money she needs to buy transportation tickets. Mohrmann portrayed a single, unemployed mother of two in the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension poverty simulation. IANR Photo.

But before they get far, a greeting: "Welcome to the state of poverty," said Marilyn Fox, Hall County extension educator and a facilitator of the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension poverty simulation.

The simulations are intended to educate participants about the frustrations of poverty and help them brainstorm solutions, Fox said. Cooperative Extension offers the poverty simulations on an appointment basis for organizations around the state.

"The poverty simulations are a good way to help people become more familiar with poverty and to experience it as best they can without ever having to live it," Fox said.

Participants take on roles in which they attempt to pay the rent, feed their families, pay utilities and earn enough "money" to survive. Others take on the roles of welfare rights workers, bankers, pawn-shop brokers, legal rights workers, grocers and others.

At a poverty simulation in Grand Island last spring, participants said they got frustrated, angry, discouraged and even desperate. With significant transportation costs, many "children" couldn't get to school and "parents" often were left powerless to search for jobs. Over the course of the "month," charity organizations and pawn shops ran low on resources. Many participants didn't know where to find help.

About 175 Central Nebraska Community Services workers participated in the Grand Island simulation, one of the largest to date.

"By walking in other folks' shoes ... we get a real eye opener," said CNCS Executive Director Jose Zapata. "It's nice to have this chance to get reacquainted with what people are going through."

At the simulation's end, participants shared their experiences and brainstormed solutions that would make it easier to escape the trappings of poverty.

"If we could combine several agencies into one building, it would make it much easier for people to get the help they need," said Molly Mohrmann, a CNCS Headstart teacher in Columbus.

Zapata said he learned it's not enough to provide friendly service to people with limited resources.

"Even if agency staff were friendly, if people didn't get what they wanted, they were upset," he said. "We have to be more than friendly - we have to give referrals and go the extra mile."

Mohrmann said she began to identify with her character over the course of the simulation, experiencing frustration when she couldn't feed her kids or pay her bills.

"At first, I tried to be organized and plan, but when one thing fell through, I just did whatever I could to get by," she said. "It was a good experience for all of us because most of us have never experienced anything that dramatic. It felt pretty real."

The poverty simulations are offered as a part of the Building Strong Families Action Team, which has been directing poverty simulations since 1996, Fox said.

For more information, call Fox at (308) 385-5088; Mary Nelson, associate extension educator for Douglas County, at (402) 444-7804 or a local extension office.



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