BV staff members gain new perspective on poverty

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The key to resilience is relationships.

That was one of many lessons Berryville School District staff members took away from a poverty simulation held Wednesday, Aug. 1, in the Bobcat Arena. Bright Futures Berryville organized the training by reaching out to the Bright Futures program in Neosho, Mo.

Tracy Clements, a school counselor and licensed professional counselor from Neosho, Mo., helped lead the simulation. She said the Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) was developed by the Missouri Community Action Network and is a live-action simulation where participants role-play the lives of low-income families to gain a greater understanding of poverty.

“We went to a poverty simulation a few years ago and decided it would be useful for everyone in our district to go through,” Clements said. “We got permission to buy the kit and do the training, and we shared it with our whole district.”

Dee Dee Dowell, Bright Futures coordinator for the Neosho School District, said they now use the CAPS kit to facilitate the poverty simulation for other school districts that want to provide it for their staff.

“We offer the training for communities as well,” Dowell said. “It doesn’t have to be schools.”

Clements said the simulation is easy to run but very thorough. The staff members are assigned roles to play, such as family members in a single-parent household or the manager of a homeless shelter, and the families try to make it through the poverty simulation without falling behind on payments, getting evicted from their homes or winding up in jail, she said.

“Each family and business has a packet that goes with them,” Clements said. “They based each one of these families off of a real family that was receiving services from a community action center in Missouri. The resources available in the simulation are resources you can actually find.”

Mindy Hicks, coordinator of Bright Futures Berryville, said the two Bright Futures organizations worked together to provide the training to Berryville staff.

Hicks said the simulation ran for about an hour and a half. Staff members were grouped into different families, she said, and were running around the arena trying to make payments and provide for their children. Homes were represented by clusters of chairs, and the chairs would be wrapped in caution tape to signify when a family had been evicted.

“We did have some community volunteers, such as Bob Ballinger, Lisa Holt from the Carroll County Health Unit and a couple of employees from Anstaff Bank,” Hicks said. “We didn’t have quite as many people as we needed for the simulation, but they did a good job.”

She said her role was being a school-age child during the poverty simulation.

“You have to pay utilities and mortgage, and you have to have a transportation pass for each one,” she said, “even though it’s one line. That puts people in a bind.”

Hicks continued, “I got a hungry tag. My parents wouldn’t feed me because my dad lost his job, and my mom couldn’t get to the bank to cash her checks before they closed the counter. She got fired because she was in jail for reckless driving trying to get to the grocery store before work.”

The staff members gathered in the center of the arena once the simulation was complete to reflect on how well each family had performed and what lessons they had taken away from the exercise.

Eighth-grade history teacher Kevin Matthews said time was the biggest challenge during the simulation.

“I was one of the parents in this scenario, and they had a nice home and some stuff,” he said. “But everything unraveled so fast. My wife wound up in jail. I was in social services trying to help her, and my kid wound up in the juvenile detention center.”

Library and media paraprofessional Andrea Jones said she realized how much group planning it takes to survive, including arranging transportation and having enough money to feed everyone in the household.

“I was a bad guy in the scenario, so I didn’t get in on that part of it,” she said. “I was always targeting the children. It took them a while, but they wore down. Initially, they were like ‘No no no,’ but then they realized their families were struggling, so they realized ‘Hey, I need to do what I can.’ ”

Cheer coach and sixth grade special education teacher Ciera Woodruff felt compelled to share her own story during the debriefing.

“When I was a freshman in high school, my parents got a divorce,” she said. “My mom was a single mom. I was 15, and my brother was 2. My mom worked full-time at a bank. I went to school, and my brother went to a preschool.”

Woodruff said she got a job at Sonic when she turned 16, and her mom decided to go back to school to become a nurse.

“At 16, I was a full-time student, a cheerleader and I paid all of our bills by working at Sonic,” she said. “It was a struggle because once you do hit the poverty line it’s so hard to come back from it.”

Woodruff continued, “If you keep believing in these kids, they can do it. I had an amazing support system with my cheer coach, who believed in me and pushed me to be better every day. I’m here today a sixth-grade teacher and a cheer coach, so it is possible.”

During that time period, she said she wanted to be working instead of going to school.

“I wanted to be home working so that maybe I could get something extra to eat or go to the movies with my friends or something,” Woodruff said. “We have to think about that when our kids are acting out in school. You don’t know what they’re going through at home, and I just wanted to share that.”

Clements said there are probably many kids in each of the Berryville School District’s buildings living in a similar situation.

“Take a moment to just be kind,” she said. “The key to resilience is relationships. She had a relationship with her cheer coach and felt resilience. Each one of you can be a resiliency factor for a kid in need. As long as you’re compassionate and understanding, you can make a difference.”

Literacy paraprofessional Nancy Puente said it’s important to remember that poverty is a cycle.

“When parents are failing, it’s easy to judge them,” she said, “but remember that parent was probably that kid living in a low-income family. It is a cycle, so try to have empathy and compassion as much as you can. They may be doing the absolute best they can.”

“You’re exactly right,” Clements said. “Even though they’re failing, they are doing their very best. No one sets out to be the worst parent. We need to pick up the slack and let children know that there’s a different way. So many kids living in this cycle don’t understand there is a different way.”

She said poverty is a multigenerational cycle. She said one of the biggest eye-openers during the poverty simulation is how much easier survival is when families start breaking the rules.

“If you turn to crime, your life is so much easier in the simulation,” Clements said. “You can get transportation passes, money and do all kinds of things. As school personnel, it’s easy for us to be judgmental toward kids’ parents when they get thrown in jail.”

She continued, “Hopefully after the simulation, we’ll be able to understand a little bit more about what the allure of crime is. I’m not saying it’s OK, but hopefully we’ll understand it a little more. If your kids are hungry and you’re about to lose housing, you get desperate.”

Another important lesson, Clements said, is realizing how much easier survival gets for some families when the older children start working.

“A high school diploma is really important in the long run,” she said, “but if I don’t have a place to sleep tonight that’s more immediate.”

Clements said this is why it is really important for school staff to know their community and what resources are out there to help low-income families.

“Technically, every one of these family scenarios can make it if you use your resources,” she said.

Hicks said she hopes to hold the poverty simulation training again next year or later this school year.

“We hope to do it again,” she said. “I hope they make it mandatory for our staff.”

“I think it’s a great program,” Clements said. “I love that we get to go out and help share it with other schools.”

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