Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not just another game

ACCESS of West Michigan descends on Lansing to engage lawmakers in poverty simulation

LANSING, MICHIGAN (April 28, 2009)--The twelve-passenger van that rolled up to the state capitol this morning did not transport your typical group of lobbyists.

Out filed a young woman, 8 1/2 months pregnant; a diabetic man confined to a wheel chair; a woman suffering from a variety of emotional disorders; a single mother slightly preoccupied with her stroke-surviving daughter's well-being.

No, not your typical group of lobbyists at all.

Then again, this wasn't your typical lobbying appointment, either.

This morning at the capitol, a group of twenty individuals affiliated with ACCESS of West Michigan teamed up to conduct a poverty simulation workshop with some of the state's lawmakers. The result was a powerful demonstration of the effects of poverty.

The event, co-sponsored by Senators Mark Jansen (R-Gaines Twp) and Bill Hardiman (R-Kent County), turned the tables for a while as participants assumed the financial burdens--and the many accompanying pitfalls and hardships--of life below the poverty line.

"This is not a game," Betsy Thompson warned before the simulation began. "Poverty is not a game for the 38 million Americans who live in such conditions."

Thompson is the Poverty Education Coordinator for ACCESS, a faith-based collaborative operating out of Kent County that aims to coordinate services directed toward the region's most needy individuals and families.

She encouraged participants to deeply engage in their roles as people coping with poverty.

The simulation assigned scenarios to the individuals present, designating family make-ups and economic conditions that are rooted in real stories that have crossed ACCESS case managers' desks over the past two and a half decades.

The Nuttin family, for example, was comprised of a single mother and three children aged 17, 13, and 9. Divorce had
 pushed the family into poverty as Nancy Nuttin was left to care for her three children and to provide the necessary income to house, clothe, and feed them. 

Over the course of the simulation, Nancy was held up at gun point; Ned Nuttin was taken into custody of the state; Nikki was released from juvenille detention; and Nathan, a high school graduate, could not obtain employment and turned to illegal activity to help support the family. 

Another family found itself impoverished due to unemployment as a result of downsizing and mass layoffs--a scenario quite relevant to thousands Michigan residents.

Amanda Comment, a staff member in Senator Jansen's office, assumed the role of an eighty-five year-old woman living alone.

Participants were given assignments--obtaining employment, purchasing groceries, visiting the health clinic, paying bills--and, naturally, few resources with which to complete them. The results mirrored real life in poverty, as frustration, fear, desperation, and downright frustration overwhelmed those in the room.
The hope for this morning's workshop in particular was to open the eyes of people with power to the plight of the powerless in their midst. The dynamic was quite interesting to observe.

Senator Jansen played the role of a four-year-old child. He found himself begging for food and complaining of his hunger as simulated days went by without food on the table.

"It's amazing how this is just a simulation," commented Bob Kefgen, Chief of Staff for Rep. Dudley Spade (D-Lenawee). 

"How frustrating this was," he exclaimed, flabbergasted. "People live this everyday."

Kefgen acted as a forty-three-year-old man who had been laid off. In the simulation he managed to find a job as a janitor, earning $200 each week.

"We still lost the house," he lamented.

The simulation was especially relevant to Kefgen: Representative Spade presides over the Department of Human Services committee in Lansing.

Another participant complained, "We didn't have the time to check out the resources (available to us.)"

Welcome to the world of so many Americans.

ACCESS of West Michigan has sponsored over 100 such workshops over the years, hoping to enlighten the community to the complexity of poverty. The simulation, borrowed from similar workshops conducted by a poverty action group in Missouri, has been adapted to address needs specific to Kent County.

Marsha DeHollander, program director for ACCESS, addressed the group at the workshop's conclusion. She first implored participants to observe a moment of silence. "This is to honor the millions of Americans who do not get to stop living in poverty when the whistle blows," she said.

After a breakout session in which participants were invited to share their initial responses to the experience, DeHollander invited the perspective of the many staffers who enacted the simulation.

Among those was Gloria Dunbar. She related the story of her daughter's health conditions which eventually forced her to quit her job to perform the duties of caretaker. "I live in poverty every day," she told the group. "Pass the word on. Every circumstance is different," she said, encouraging them to consider policy decisions with compassion.

From his wheelchair, Rodger Granger also spoke of the complexity of poverty. "I worked for over thirty years," he said. "But when I contracted diabetes and my health deteriorated, I couldn't work anymore. In the process I lost my job, my income, my sense of worth, my security."

Brenda and Brittany Dalecke shared their story, too. Brenda was a successful mother and supervisor in the nonprofit sector prior to succumbing to substance abuse and making a foolish mistake that landed her in the Michigan Department of Corrections. Her daughter, Brittany, was consequently driven to many self-destructive behaviors. She likewise found herself confronting poverty's difficulties.

They stood as examples of hope--the two have both emerged out of poverty.

Not all are so lucky. "I had education and social support," explained Brenda. She now serves as a community outreach director for a faith congregation in Holland.

"I was fortunate to have gone to college," added Brittany, a senior at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. "So many don't have that opportunity."

And while the complexity and breadth of poverty is vast, the working solutions seem to be all too scarce.

"We hope to change the mentality (of workshop participants) about those who live in poverty," said Thompson. "It's not always about working hard or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Next time they might think differently about poverty, and we hope they will do something about it."

ACCESS offers resources and opportunities for involvment to individuals interested in responding to the harsh realities of poverty. Its work in the community provides counseling, coordinated services, education, and advocacy on behalf of West Michigan's needy.

"Sometimes helping is just giving a hand so that (people in poverty) can get out of their situation," observed Corrie Krol, a Calvin College senior wrapping up her internship with ACCESS.

But today was about working for systemic change.

"The simulation is always effective, but the stories are what participants find the most compelling," said DeHollander. The perspectives she invited to Lansing put faces on the many statistics and simulated experiences of poverty that were shared at the capitol.

"When you look in the mirror, I hope that face becomes real--that face of poverty that you had to wear today," Gloria Dunbar told the group.

And so the ACCESS van departed Lansing, having turned the tables for a morning, hopeful that the tables will also turn for their neighbors and communities so deeply affected by poverty.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

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