Delaware County leaders, educators and residents learned what it takes to live in poverty last week.
To better understand the more than 4 percent of county residents who live below the poverty line, about 40 people stepped into fictional roles Friday, June 21, portraying adults and children, some of whom had lost jobs, gotten sick, failed out of school, been arrested or were addicted to drugs.
They then attempted to navigate through all the responsibilities of daily life, including picking up children at day care, paying rent and applying for county services.
The act was part of a poverty simulation hosted by the United Way of Delaware County, which recognized the agency's Worldwide Day of Action on June 21.
"Delaware County is ranked the first in this and the best in that all the time, but that doesn't hide the fact that there are real needs here," said Barb Lyon, vice president of the United Way of Delaware County. "There are people who experience job loss and we have research that shows that we have had an increase of families who are using a food bank for the first time."
The simulation divided presidents of local corporations, philanthropists, community agency leaders, teachers and others into various fictional family scenarios. The groups of chairs they sat in represented their home base. It was there that they found a packet with information about each member of the family. The packet also included detailed information about the family's financial situation.
"I help people get services, so to make sure I'm helping them as best as possible, I wanted to put myself in their shoes to know what they're going through and how difficult it can be," said Maureen Winbigler, a coordinator at the Delaware County drug court.
Along with Winbigler, who portrayed a drug-dealing high schooler who had gotten his girlfriend pregnant, Delaware County District Library Executive Director Mary Jane Santos was part of the fictional Epperman family that had just $10 in the bank and no income source.
"We need to learn how this community can help those that need help, and this is a way to learn how to better do that," Santos said.
During the simulation, 15 minutes represented one week. In that one week, some participants juggled seven minutes at work or school along with picking up children from day care and finding time to stand in line at social services or get a loan from the bank to pay overdue medical bills.
Around the room, tables were set up to represent a day care, social services, a payday cash advance business, a supermarket, the utility department, a mortgage and realty firm, a bank, interfaith services, a pawn shop, a health center, a general employer and the sheriff's office. Participants stopped by the tables they thought might help them reach their goal of finishing the week with a healthy family, a safe home and a bank account in the black.
"All we've done so far this week is go to the bank and we're already stressed, because we don't have the time or the steady income to make a reliable budget," said Becky Dittman, a teacher at Tyler Run Elementary School who participated in the simulation.
She brought along her 14-year-old son, Shelby, who became interested in helping those less fortunate during an eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C., where there is a large homeless population.
"I think it's important for kids to have an idea of what it might be like for those living in poverty," Dittman said. "I plan to bring some of the lessons I learn here to my students, because sometimes it's hard for them to think outside the neighborhood they live in."
Following the simulation, "families" shared their triumphs and failures of the one-hour-long month. Then came the United Way's call to action, during which participants were asked to consider how they could give back or be more empathetic to those living in poverty in Delaware County.
The Ohio Association of Food Banks planned the day's activities in partnership with the Delaware County United Way. The association hosts about one simulation each month for schools, agencies and businesses that want to better understand the diverse needs of those living in poverty.
"A lot of people have preconceived notions about why someone might be in poverty, but those stereotypes aren't true," said Carol Whitmer, the association's food program manager.
"I once had someone at an agency say that she would tell people to just go get a job, but after the simulation, she learned it's not always as easy as just going out and getting a job," she said. "Many times, it's much more complicated than that."