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Missional organization to give glimpse of poverty's challenges at local colleges

Access of West Michigan will present a poverty simulation workshop designed to promote an understanding of low-income struggles at Davenport University on March 24 and at GRCC on March 31.

Poverty Simulation Workshops

Davenport University

March 24, 2014

Grand Rapids Community College

March 31, 2014

Both workshops are from 6:30-9 p.m.

Register for either event here

Workshop participants interact with a banker.

Workshop participants interact with a banker. /Courtesy of Access of West Michigan

/Courtesy of Access of West Michigan

Rent, food, clothing, heat - these are essential costs for living in West Michigan. But what if a family's income isn't enough to cover these costs?

Access of West Michigan's upcoming poverty simulation workshops will seek to initiate participants into the knowledge of what it's like for the working poor to balance their budget with their incomes. The workshops progress participants through four 15-minute "weeks" where they play the role of a low-income person approaching stores and agencies to acquire goods and services considered essential. One will be held at Davenport University on March 24 and one will be held at Grand Rapids Community College on March 31. Workshops are intended to "sensitize participants to the realities faced by low-income people and motivate them to become involved in activities which help reduce poverty in our communities," according the organization's website.

"At the end of the fourth week most [participants] get foreclosed on and are homeless and frustrated. There's a lot of emotion because it's such an interactive workshop," says Brenda Dalecke, Poverty Education Coordinator for Access of West Michigan. 

Upon arrival participants will receive a packet detailing the low-income identity they will role-play for the next hour. Volunteers play the roles of bankers, grocers and health care professionals. Participants interact with the volunteers in attempts to do business and avoid "foreclosure." All of the volunteers have a history dealing with poverty and many are still living in poverty. After the hour-long simulation there is a debriefing session where participants form small groups to discuss what they've learned, followed by volunteers sharing testimonies of their past or current struggles dealing with low incomes.

"Our staffers have a passion for [poverty] education. Awareness is the key to action," says Dalecke. "Once [participants] are aware [of poverty] we can guide them to the way they can best contribute, whether that be financial, volunteering, calling a legislator or something else."

Access of West Michigan has been organizing these workshops since 1996, with over 200 workshops held in Kent and Ottawa Counties. A workshop was also once hosted by the organization overseas in Prague, Czech Republic, and once within the state's capital for state legislators.

"One of the [legislators] let us know the following week that she voted differently on a childcare bill than she would have if she hadn't gone through the simulation," says Dalecke. "Some of these staffers have hard stories to sum up, but I have witnessed accidents, divorce, home foreclosure, loss of a job, mental illness or unemployment take someone that's in the middle class and push them down to the poverty level."

Dalecke has personally experienced the descent from the middle class into poverty.

"I had an all-American upbringing," she says. "I went to college, got married and had three beautiful girls. All of a sudden things changed. My husband died of brain cancer when my girls were still in grade school, and after that I went through some tragic things. I was undiagnosed bipolar and I committed a crime, and despite a good lawyer and my position as a parent and a business owner they gave me three to eight years in the department of corrections. When I came out I had lost everything I ever had, and no one would hire me."

Dalecke says that she believes her past factored into Access of West Michigan hiring her.

"I was living in poverty when I started staffing these workshops 11 years ago," she says. "Because I've lived on both sides, I have a passion to help people understand [poverty] and ways they can help."

Help sometimes comes during the volunteer testimonials, as they share their needs at the end of the workshop.  

"A lot of times a volunteer staffer [at the workshop] will stand up and say, 'All I need is a job,' and often there's someone in the audience that will give them a job. One volunteer needed a new wheelchair, and after he talked about that in his story someone hooked him up with a new wheelchair," says Dalecke.

Dalecke says there are still participant openings available for both workshops. The organization expects a full, 75-participant workshop for the GRCC workshop.

"We hope that participants take action to make their own contributions to fight poverty," she says.

Registration fees vary and can be determined by visiting the registration website. Registration and other information about the workshops can be found on the event website. Both workshops run from 6:30-9 p.m.   

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