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Wichita educators 'experience' poverty in role-playing program

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, at 9:09 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, at 6:57 a.m.


Molly Nespor couldn’t find work. Then she couldn’t pay rent, so she got evicted.

Clarence Mills got robbed twice, then tried to rob a bank to get money for food and ended up in jail.

Jeannie Betsworth, an unemployed high school dropout, scammed, schemed and pawned stolen goods to keep her family afloat. But she worried about the lessons her little brothers learned from her pockets full of unexplained cash.

It was only a game – an interactive simulation called the Cost of Poverty Experience. But the teachers and staff members at Allen Elementary School in Wichita said the two-hour exercise last week offered valuable insight about the real-life situations some students and families face.

“After Week One was such a horrible start, it felt like there’s no coming back,” said Nespor, principal at Allen, which is near Harry and Oliver in southeast Wichita. “How do you get back on top?

“I would just kind of stand there in line and think, ‘Well, I’m screwed. I don’t know what to do from here.’ And that feeling is horrible.”

The Cost of Poverty Experienceoffers participants a glimpse into the lives of low-income people and families. During a teacher in-service day Friday, Allen Elementary employees filed into the school gym, where they were assigned to various roles or families and given packets explaining their circumstances.

Around the room, volunteers manned stations representing community services, including a minimum-wage employment agency, gas station, bank, pawn shop, health clinic, day care and homeless shelter. Participants were given four weeks – each week corresponding to about 15 minutes’ worth of time – during which they had to pay rent, buy food, pay bills, go to work and attend to various tasks such as medical appointments, probation check-ins or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Art teacher Lisa Morabito was optimistic at first. Her character, Roger, had a job and a car. Although he had to support a family of six, including a wife with disabilities and her aging mother, Morabito figured she would just go to work, pay her bills, and everything would be fine.

But two weeks in a row, she didn’t get a paycheck. Her employer didn’t explain why. When she finally got paid, it was with a voucher that the bank wouldn’t cash. She couldn’t pay for gas, food or Grandma’s medication.

Meanwhile, her oldest son – a 20-something dropout and drug user played by Betsworth – tried to get a job but didn’t have transportation. He ended up stealing food vouchers, cash and other items, at one point working alongside a roving “drug lord” to get what he needed to help his parents, grandmother and brothers.

“I kind of feel like I have kept my family afloat,” Betsworth said. “But from a teacher’s perspective, when we were all sitting around and I was going, ‘OK, I stole this, and I’ve got this, and I did this,’ the younger ones were watching.

“That was just a huge moment for me, because I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what do our kids see?’ ”

‘Constant stress’

More than 85 percent of students at Allen qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. Teachers, counselors and other staff members say it’s not unusual for students to talk about being evicted, living without electricity or even being separated from parents convicted of drug abuse or other crimes.

“In this questionnaire where it talks about your definition of poverty? It’s stress – constant stress,” Nespor said during a discussion after Friday’s simulation.

“I just had this complete feeling of being overwhelmed and ‘Why am I even here?’ ” she said. “I think I’m a pretty empathetic person to begin with, but this has really opened my eyes.”

Ashley Veatch, a second-grade teacher, played an undocumented worker during the simulation. Police apprehended her on her way to work during Week Three, so she spent several minutes waiting in a makeshift jail, knowing she would lose her job and any hope of paying the month’s bills.

“It’s scary. We’re running from place to place, just trying to get things done,” Veatch said. “We didn’t realize we’d have to open a bank account to cash the check, so I had to go back and do that. … You know these are things that happen in real life.”

Some participants got scammed by shady landlords. Others haggled with pawn shop owners. Some dropped out of school to go to work. Others opted to pay their rent instead of buying groceries, gas or medication – so they avoided the homeless shelter but had to deal with other consequences.

Two women who portrayed young children left home alone said they avoided eye contact with roving police officers because they feared their parents would get into trouble if they were discovered.

Debbie Erwin, a special-education teacher, didn’t make it to day care in time to retrieve her baby at the end of the first week. She spent the rest of the session dealing with attorneys and the court system. At one point, she sat on the floor in front of the bank, waiting for the next whistle to blow so she could be first in line to cash her check and pay her next bill.

“I have to be here,” she told a police officer who arrived to shoo her away. “I’m not loitering. I need to get my money so I can get my baby back.”

‘General chaos’

Jan McMahon of the Sedgwick County Extension Service helped coordinate Friday’s simulation at Allen.

She said the exercise is based on real-life situations and illustrates what many low-income families have to go through every day. A “fate card” issued to each individual or family during Week Three forced them to deal with unexpected emergencies such as medical issues or a layoff.

“All those wonderful things that happen on top of the general chaos you see here,” McMahon said, gesturing around the gym.

Participants who had begun the exercise strolling leisurely from station to station were now sprinting around the room, trying to avoid long lines or other delays.

“We’re hoping that people gain some empathy and understand that these people aren’t lazy,” she said. “It’s not, ‘Just get a job.’

“They’ve got a lot of things juggling. Middle-class families have a lot of things to juggle, too, but we’ve got more resources to fall back on to help us.”

Cindy Chrisman, an assistant principal, said the role-playing exercise helped her realize the importance of forging relationships with Allen families and putting them in touch with community resources such as food pantries and employment agencies.

“They need to trust us,” Chrisman said. “They need to be able to believe that we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do.

“They need to know that when we say ‘We’re going to try to help you’ that we’re really going to do that.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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