Yesterday, I attended the first event of the year for the United Way of Champaign County's Emerging Community leaders Class of 2010. 
I wasn't sure what to expect, but certainly didn't anticipate a simulation that plunged me and my new classmates into poverty.
We were organized into families, and I was the 15-year-old daughter of a woman whose husband had just left her with no income, $20 cash and a load of debt. Our goal: to get through the month, made up up 15-minute weeks, and pay all our bills. We got a sheet outlining those bills, which far exceeded our non-existent income.
The simulation included vendors like the bank, pawn shop, utilities collector, rent collector, school and welfare office. To get to any of these places, you needed a transportation pass which cost $2 and were collected at each vendor participants visited. It also featured a man touting illegal activities. Participants could pawn items for him and keep a percentage.
My family's mom took our family's only transportation pass to the welfare office first thing, and spent the first 15-minute week there. My 14-year-old brother and I had no way to get to school, so the town's friendly police officer picked us up for being truant.
The rest of the month continued to be challenging. My brother skipped school to pawn both our appliances and those supplied by the illegal activities guy. He got expelled. He tried to barter with the utilities collection man, but that wasn't happening. Another family stole our food, and the landlord tried to evict us. We couldn't catch a break, and we didn't come close to paying off our expenses.
I know it was only a simulation, but man, I don't know if I can adequately explain to you how panic-inducing it was. I didn't have enough time to finish my homework. The woman playing the teacher started serving pretend snack breaks and pizza party because many students hadn't eaten.
There was never enough time, enough money, enough convincing arguments to get our family over the hump. And most of the time, things were so chaotic that I had no idea what my mother or brother were up to.
Other participants said they had similar responses as we discussed the simulation when it was over. One mentioned she was surprised by her willingness to turn to illegal activities to make ends meet. Others approached it with, “What bill can we get away with not paying?” Others mentioned the fact that they'd neglected their children because they were too busy trying to try to pay their rent, buy food and keep their lives from crumbling around them.
And as the leaders of the program pointed out, this is what more than 35,000 people in Champaign County who live below the poverty line deal with on a daily and monthly basis. That means a family of four is living with an income of $23,000 a year or less. They're just trying to make it to the next month.
And 400 school-age kids in Champaign County are homeless, which means they're never sure where they're going to sleep when they come home from school. I felt totally unnerved in a simulation of possibly becoming homeless. I can't imagine how it must feel to live it.
But, United Way President and CEO Lyn Jones told me today in an e-mail, these facts are the reason it's so important to have programs to assist those living in poverty. People need food pantries, subsidized housing, school lunches, rent and utility assistance, free clothing distributions and similar programs to get by.
“We learned about the simulation from the sister of one of our staff members,” Jones said. “She works at a hospital in Indy and staff there go through the simulation to create awareness and sensitivity to the condition of many of the patients they see. Clearly anyone participating knows that they are in a simulation and they will return to their own life when it's over, but I do believe the decision-making that is necessary is real in the moment. The last time we did this I was part of an elderly couple and throughout we had to decide whether to get food or prescriptions because there wasn't enough money for both. I thought about my parents and how awful it would be if they had to make such decisions and I did feel the desperation.”
The goal of the Emerging Community Leaders program, Jones told me, is to teach the answers about how the United Way helps those living in poverty.
“We fund over fifty programs for young children and youth, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, hunger, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and school readiness,” she said.
I can't wait to learn more.
(Logo is from www.uwayhelps.org )