By Greg Gelpi
To help those in poverty, one must first experience poverty.
Clayton County school counselors and social workers from the Clayton County Division of Family and Children Services reversed roles with their clients during a poverty simulation.
Darting around the North Jonesboro Center cafeteria, participants smiled as they behaved as children, single parents and other assigned roles. But, the laughter of the simulation quickly gave way, replaced by the seriousness of dwindling finances, mounting frustrations and one participant "beating" her child with a belt.
Fortunately, the scenario was merely a simulation, but unfortunately the simulation is painfully realistic, Suzanne Igler said.
"It's fun to role play, but it's sad because of the reality," Igler said.
Igler, a Clayton County Juvenile Court program coordinator, served as a landlord during the exercise, as families struggled to and sometimes didn't pay rent. She wasn't surprised. Families pass through her office daily with similar struggles.
Tamila Jackson, a Riverdale High School guidance counselor, played the part of a stressed grandmother. With her daughter in jail on drug charges and forced to raise her grandson who has Attention Deficit Disorder, Jackson's character snapped and resorted to hitting her child with a belt.
"It's really making me think about the families I deal with and what they have to go through," Jackson said.
She admitted growing frustrated just reading the profile of her character before the simulation began. Acting out her part caused even more frustration.
"It's going to make me more compassionate," she said. "I'm compassionate already, but I think I'll go the extra mile to be more compassionate."
From Spanish-speaking loan officers to a thief breaking into homes, simulators had to cope with life's problems while providing for their families.
"Now that you've had this experience, how do you work with families in poverty?" asked Kim Siebert, Clayton County Cooperative Extension coordinator.
The simulation was designed to heighten sensitivity and provide a glimpse into the lives of the poor. Participants simulated a month by conducting four 15-minute weeks. During the weeks, they worked as a family on limited incomes to gather income, pay bills, care for children and handle problems, such as the need for immunizations, which arose.
"We all have hassles, we all have stresses, but add on that not having money to meet the basic needs," said Sharon Gibson, a member of the University of Georgia Department of Family and Consumer Science faculty, who led the exercise. "People tend to take their home to work and their work home."
The average American living in poverty works 1.2 jobs, she said, and the largest impoverished group is children. More than a million Georgians, about 17 percent of the state's population, live in poverty.
"Remember at the end of this play month you get to walk away," Gibson said. "They don't get to walk away."
The Clayton County Cooperative Extension Service and Family Care sponsored the simulation and plan to offer a simulation in the spring for the public to participate in.