Monday, September 12, 2011

Poverty simulation brings insight to MCLP class

It's 7:45 on a hot Monday morning. I wake up to a crying baby, starving for not only food but also loveand affection. It's time to get ready for school, but I first have tomake sure someone can watch my child.

Mom's on her way out the door for work,as dad plans to head back to the unemployment office to try to find ajob. The baby's screams are getting louder and louder. As I packtogether my uncompleted school work, I think to myself, “Will Iever catch a break?”

This is just one of several scenarios that are dealt with on a regular basis. It's a struggle that hits home for more than 33 million people who fall within the poverty guidelines in the United States. Sixteen year old Connie Chen, played by yours truly, is not the only one who felt the pressure during the poverty simulation hosed by the University of Illinois Extension and the Multicultural Leadership Program.

Some local political leaders understand the importance this group and the simulation experience. State Representative Dan Brady, Normal Councilwoman Sonja Reece, and Bloomington Alderman Bernie Anderson made sure they'd catch a glimpse or participate in the exercise. It included 75 participants who were broken up into groups representing families. Each family faced aunique scenario and had to live with limited resources, using only the tools provided in the room for their assistance.

MCLP focuses on cultivating professional development and leadership skills among a diverse groupof community leaders. Members of this group are selected by board members who represent diverse backdrops of the Bloomington Normal community.

The room was outlined with mock community sites including a grocery store, pawn shop, unemployment office, and church. Though the scenarios were set up as a simulation,the struggles the participants encountered gave them a taste of reality in the world of the underserved. It was an experience that opened up my eyes to this part of the world that I have selfishly overlooked in the past.

I played the part of Connie Chen and actually broke a sweat trying to calm down my mock baby, who wouldnot stop crying. The poverty simulation participants heard the cries as a representation of their respective struggles and frustrations.

Participant Mike Hennings playedthe role of my unemployed father, Charles. He spent the simulation jumping from one place to another, trying to negotiate payments forour gas, electricity, and mortgage, while trying to find gainfulemployment. While mom Cindy was at work, dad often had to watch the baby so I could go to school. Hennings said he felt like he hit adead end.

"As a father in real life I want to do the best for my kids. As a father in the simulation, I felt like acomplete failure... I felt like I was not living up to my expectations,” stated Hennings.

Unfortunately, dad couldn't live up to his expectations and our family was evicted. This was hard on my mock siblings, who were only eight and 10 years old. Brian Cunningham played the role of 10-year old Carl Chen and said he felt like he didn't exist.

“It was frustrating because when we talked to our parents after school, they didn't hear us. They were too busy talking about their own struggles that they tuned us out.Even though it was a simulation, it hurt when I came home and saw that the chairs were turned over and we had been evicted, ” added Cunningham.

“Sometimes you don't understand people and the struggles they go through and why they get so frustrated in certain situations... now I understand,” said Pretty Regi, who played mother Cindy Chen.

It's a lesson that University ofIllinois Extension Educator Sandy McGhee continues to push. She has helped moderate the poverty simulation for more than a decade.

“Nothing explains being which then becomes knowing,” said McGhee.

McGhee said current and future leaders have already begun seeing life through an entirely different perspective.

But just going through the simulation was not enough for some group members. Mike Hennings would like the discussion surrounding the scenarios to continue.

“I'd like our group to go together and talk about these problems and what we can do to move forward,” said Hennings.

Hennings has already started communicating with the group via email. Meanwhile, Sandra Coy said the experience has prompted her to help others right away.

“I would like to get a couple of extra cans whenever I go grocery shopping and donate them.”

McGhee said she hopes more participants will take proactive steps. Especially since these situations are reflected in real life for some families at the UNITY CommunityCenter in Normal, which is also linked to the University of Illinois Extension.

“We see these struggles all the time with the children that go to that after school program and how their families are looking to make it, so I think this is very representative of the families struggling in McLean County.”

Following the simulation, members of the 2012 MCLP class discussed their personal experience as a group during a debriefing session. It was a life altering experience formany of the growing community leaders.

But the experience also hit home for past participants such as Michael Donnelly. The 2010 MCLP graduate says he embraces the lessons he takes away from the simulations. This year Donnelly played the role of a child, he had played a struggling senior citizen in the past. Donnelly is an Outreach Counselor at Normal Community West High School.

“There are so many other things that impacts a child's life and I got a first hand look at the struggles they go through.”

MCLP Board Member Sonya Mau continues to learn from the simulations as well.

Sandra Coy, who played eight year old Chad, said she also felt neglected.

She said, “If my parents would have talked to me, I could have done more to help the family.”

In the end, it was a learning experience for all those involved.

“The simulations have been held at both of our Unit 5 high schools and we've had ones set up for our government leaders to attend, which I think is very important to take the time to understand the challenges faced by the people they represent.”

“This session had the greatest impact on me,” she stated. “ This is a very important session that changes people's perspectives and therefore their lives.


  1. As my first time doing the simulation, I must say that it was truly eye-opening.

    The important lessons that I took away from the event were the following:

    (1) All it takes is one wrong turn, one mistake, or one piece of bad luck to really put a family in a dire financial situation. Recovering from that situation can be very difficult or impossible.

    (2) There were many different service agencies that could help, but it was difficult to know which agencies could help and where they were located.

    (3) Without a car, transportation is a real nightmare. It was very hard to get from one job to another, pay bills, make it to the store, and get to service agencies.

    (4) With everything that was going on, families really had to work together to make it through. Unfortunately, it felt like the kids really suffered. Either we couldn't really spend any quality time with them or we needed them to act like responsible adults, which can be hard for a child to do.

    Echoing the sentiments from Sonya Mau, the Poverty Simulation session is one that has changed my perspective. It's astonishing to think how much empathy, compassion, and insight can be gained from a single simulation such as this. I'm truly grateful to have been a part of it.

  2. I agree with Craig and echo his views. I recently volunteered to be on the other side. However I was still touched by how 40+ million people in United States have to face this situation every single day of their lives.