By Khalida Sarwari
Standing in line to check in with his employer and pick up his paycheck, one middle school student admitted he felt a little stressed. But he was one of the lucky ones–at least he had a job. About 15 feet away, another student sat in a chair, unable to work due to a disability. So 11-year-old Jacob Kahn-Samuelson sat and watched people … bored, waiting.
“I just run errands around the house and I give money to our child,” he said.
Minutes later, one of his friends came running in to tell him that his family’s valuables had been stolen. The refrigerator, furniture, car, stove–all of it gone.
“Sad,” the boy said. “But that means we don’t have to pay for the car now.”
The students, most of whom attend the Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, spent a good two hours of their time on a Thursday afternoon developing strategies on how to get through a month with very little money and limited resources as part of a “poverty simulation” exercise at the Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos.
The goal of the exercise, said Carol Stevenson, Sacred Heart Community Service’s community involvement coordinator, is to encourage the students to “understand and have empathy for the struggles of people that are poor.”
The simulation was done by putting nearly 60 students, most of them middle school-aged, in clusters of three to five with at least one adult. Everyone in the group was assigned an identity. The challenge was to make it through a month of poverty, with every 15 minutes representing one week of the month and five minute breaks in between as the “weekends” where they could spend time with their families. In the 15 minutes, they had to go to school, drop off their children at a daycare center if they had kids, take a bus to work if they were lucky enough to have a job, go to the bank, shop for groceries and pay their mortgage and utility bills. In the process, they dealt with rude workers, long lines, bills and in some cases the unexpected, such as burglaries, incarceration and sickness.
In Ryan Decker’s case, it was the pregnancy of his girlfriend. The 14-year-old Ryan, an eighth grader who lives in Los Gatos, acted the part of a 17-year-old boy named Dan Duntley, whose father left his family, his mother is jobless and he decides to drop out of school and become a drug dealer. Dan spends the first part of the “month “in “jail” and the rest of the time meandering about. But in the end Ryan learned some important lessons.
“Being a dropout is not exactly fun,” he said. And not having money? “It sucks not being able to afford stuff.”
Everyone had their own battles to fight. Some had to decide between paying the utility bill or for school clothes for a growing child. Others had to choose whether to stay home from work with a sick child or leave the child alone so that they would not lose a day’s wages. Use change for bus fare or to buy one more loaf of bread? There were no easy answers.
One student stood in line to pawn her “stereo” for money. “I decided since we have a TV, we don’t really need a stereo,” she said.
For many, these dilemmas are a reality, said Robert Gomez, who acted the part of one of the community workers. Just last year, Gomez was homeless, living in a shelter in Sunnyvale. Now, he works at Downtown Streets Team, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit group that helps the homeless, and lives in an apartment in San Jose. His story, Gomez said, proves that things can change for the better.
“And things like this help make that change,” he said.
At the conclusion of the exercise, Shira Fishbin, an 11-year-old from Campbell, was determined to make some changes in her own life–starting with her allowance.
“I realized I use my money on a lot of things I don’t actually need,” she said. “I should start saving my money.”
In her sixth grade class at Yavneh, a Jewish middle school, the students are taught prayers about gratitude and appreciation, Shira said. But the simulation exercise made her realize just what that means.
“I realized how important it is to be thankful for what you do have,” she said. “Having a home, that’s what I’m most thankful for.”
The poverty simulation was part of Yavneh’s social justice program that aims to highlight awareness of social injustices, engages students in philanthropic giving and requires students to become involved in community service projects. The exercise was facilitated by Step Up Silicon Valley, a consortium of nonprofit and faith-based groups working to decrease poverty in local communities in collaboration with Sacred Heart.