Poverty simulation exercise opens eyes

Poverty simulation exercise opens eyes
December 10
00:00 2015
Photos by Judie Holcomb-Pack
 (Left) “Family” discusses their situation during poverty simulation.
By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

Principal Gary Cone was a 19-year-old single mother who had dropped out of high school, and Principal Judy Jones was an 85-year-old man who was homeless.

Principals and management team members in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools became children and adults in families struggling to get by.

It was all part of an exercise facilitated by Crisis Control Ministry to give people a better sense of the challenges of living in poverty.

“The basic needs are difficult to address,” said Jackie Pierson, school system’s program manager for library media services. “I think it opens your eyes to the great needs we have right here in Winston-Salem.”

They were assigned a character. Some adults became children for the exercise, some men became women and women became men. Depending on who they were, that might mean they ended up spending long hours waiting to talk to a social services worker only to find that the office was closing and they were going to have to come back the next day and start the process all over. It might mean choosing to send a sick child to school because they couldn’t afford to stay home and miss work.

“What opened my eyes more than just the poverty was the frustration with the system,” said Principal Judy Jones of Caleb’s Creek Elementary.

Bill Blackburn, the director of training for Crisis Control, said that it could be easy to think of it all as a game but that, for many people, it’s not a game. It’s the life they’re living.

“My children come to school hungry, in some cases angry,” Principal Bea Veto of Easton Elementary said. “There is no excuse that, in our country, we have hungry children. The indignity many suffer is inhumane at best.”

Estimates are that 68,000 people in Forsyth County – 55,000 of them living in Winston-Salem – are living in poverty. That’s 18 percent of the county’s population and 23 percent of the city’s population.

Lucy Shaffer-Doherty, the public relations & marketing coordinator for Crisis Control, pointed out, anyone – particularly those living paycheck to paycheck – could find themselves in such trying circumstances.

Blackburn said that, when people talk afterward about the experiences they had during a simulation, they often use such words as “stressed,” “mad,” “angry,” and “hopeless.”

People talked about the need to explore ways in which the school system could do more to help people in such circumstances.

“Maybe we need to rethink our own bureaucracy,” said Superintendent Beverly Emory. “The system could be more friendly.”

Tracey Semcer, a Forsyth County Public Health employee who was helping with the simulation, said that it’s clear that people in education already knew a lot about what people in poverty are dealing with.

Cone, who is the principal at Paisley IB Magnet School, walked out of the Education Building afterward and said that the experience left him feeling both overwhelmed and better informed.

For one, when people come into school angry, he better understands that, although their anger may appear to be directed at him, it might really be a reflection of the frustration they’re feeling from countless trying circumstances in their lives.

“On another level, it about made me cry,” Cone said.

The exercise also gave him an understanding of how people in such circumstances help each other. After portraying someone who had dropped out of high school, he said, he now wants to do more to help those trying to go back and earn their degree.

Schools that would like to schedule a simulation for staff members should get in touch with Bill Blackburn at or call 336-724-7875 extension 1021.


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