Should you put gas in the car to get to work or take your child to the doctor? These are difficult decisions that some people in our community face, according to Heidi Gullickson, executive director of the Brookings Area United Way.

Community members can gain a greater understanding about the challenges those living in poverty face by participating in Community Challenges: A Poverty Simulation Event Sept. 20 from 12:30 to 4 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church Community Life Center.

The free event, a collaboration with South Dakota State University’s Department of Counseling and Human Development, is an activity during the first week of the annual United Way fundraising campaign. For planning purposes, those wishing to participate should go to the events section on the Brookings Area United Way Facebook page to get a free ticket via Eventbrite.

“The simulation will help bring to light some of the tough choices that those living in poverty must make,” Gullickson said. The Brookings Area United Way supports more than 40 local service organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, the Brookings Domestic Abuse Shelter, the Backpack Project and Meals on Wheels.

Jill Thorngren, dean of the SDSU College of Education and Human Sciences, said, “The poverty simulation puts into action the admonition, ‘Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.’ We are excited to be able to offer this moving experience to the Brookings community.” Thorngren also serves on the United Way board of directors.

“I am happy to be partnering with SDSU and invite community members and students to join us. Through greater awareness, we hope to be able to reach our fundraising goal so we can provide support for those who need it most,” Gullickson said.

Participant applying for assistance in poverty simulation
Volunteers, on the right, representing an assistance agency provide help to a participant during a 2018 poverty simulation at McCrory Gardens.

Role-playing in low-income family

“Participants are randomly assigned the life of an actual individual who lives in poverty. The characters are real people who were served by a social services provider in another state,” said assistant professor Kristine Ramsay-Seaner of the Department of Counseling and Human Development, who will coordinate the poverty simulation. She is part of a team of volunteers representing agencies from which low-income families can seek help.

“After the participants meet their families, they work together to make it through one month,” explained Ramsay-Seaner, describing the simulation as fast-paced. “The first week is a bit chaotic, but by the second week, the role-players are sprinting.” In addition, the participants must deal with unexpected events, such a car breaking down.

“It can be really challenging. Sometimes the person who is the head of the household is not the person who should be the decision-maker,” Ramsay-Seaner said. The simulation takes approximately an hour, followed by a debriefing in which participants share the insights they have gained.

“Even if you’ve been through one before, I encourage folks to come again—and bring a friend, because every time the experience is different,” Gullickson said.

Building empathy

SDSU graduate student Katie Fenster, who participated in a 2019 simulation and will be a volunteer for the United Way event, said, “I knew a lot of book facts about poverty. However, the simulation profoundly influenced how I understand poverty, how it penetrates every aspect of life.”

The Maryland native, who is specializing in clinical mental health counseling, played the role of a pregnant 16-year-old who chose to stay in school. “I did not have the time or financial resources to obtain prenatal care or even to go to the clinic,” she said. “In retrospect, I wondered if dropping out of school and getting a job would have been better for the whole family.”

Megan Florestano, a mental health counseling graduate student from Wisconsin, said, “I learned a newer, more nuanced empathy for people struggling in the cycle of poverty. It challenged my assumption about how the system and government are set up to help, or to hinder, those living below the poverty line.”

Through the experience, she realized “the stress and pressure people living in poverty face every day and the sheer exhaustion of always feeling like the cards are stacked against you.”

COURTESY OF: SDSU Marketing & Communications

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