The group was divided into families and acted out scenarios encountered by individuals living at or below the federal poverty line.
The goal was to keep the household secure for one month. Family members had to find or maintain employment, provide food for the household and pay the mortgage and utility bills.
Most found after the first 15-minute week that accomplishing these tasks would not be easy.
One family had been evicted by the end of the simulation. Some had not been able to purchase food or keep the utilities on.
Almost all had made visits to the local pawn shop and payday loan firm for quick cash. They later learned that after accounting for exorbitant interest rates, they likely paid $3 for every $1 they received.
Elizabeth Clark of Alabama Possible reminded students that their experiences are a common occurrence in Alabama, where more than 19 percent of residents live in poverty.
“It can be fun when it’s a game, but it’s not too much fun when you’re trying to make these type of choices for your families,” Clark said.
The students were chastised by several community leaders portraying service providers for not seeking their assistance.
One of the least frequented tables during the scenario was the Community Action Agency, which had housing vouchers to give away.
The table was manned by Deidre Tatum, executive director of the Walker County Community Action Agency.
Tatum said the low income families that she and her staff serve face the same scenarios that the students did and often make the same mistakes as well.
“They don’t know where to go to get assistance, so they go to the title loan places, the pawn shops and other places they shouldn’t go because they’re not aware of what the community services are in this area,” Tatum said.
Linda Lewis of the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County represented inter-faith services in the scenario and said students also ignored her resources.
“We had free coupons, free money to help you pay your bills, but nobody came to see us. Churches are out there to help also. Refer people to your faith-based organizations,” Lewis said.
Cristy Moody, the advisor of Youth Leadership Walker County, was in a group of local adults who went through the poverty simulation several months ago.
Moody played the role of a 20-year-old college student. She was forced to drop out of school after her father went to jail, leaving her to take care of her two younger siblings.
As director of operations for the Walker Area Community Foundation, she was well-versed in the various social services. However, the pressure of the simulation and ticking time clock left her immobilized.
“I just couldn’t get it together. I was surprised by that and by how frustrating it was. There wasn’t enough time to get to all the places that you needed to get to for your family,” Moody said.
Moody said she wanted members of Youth Leadership Walker County to experience the simulation in order to gain perspective as they prepare for life after high school.
“I hope it motivates them to think through the future, whether it be college or job readiness programs. I want them to think, ‘I can’t just depend on everybody else,’” Moody said.
The exercise also put the students in the right mindset for reviewing grant applications. WACF provides $10,000 to each group of Youth Leadership Walker County participants to award to area nonprofits.