College of Health and Behavioral Studies

Day in the life of the impoverished: JMU's IIHHS hosts simulation

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By Brett Seekford ('16)

From September 13-14, a local employment office saw long lines of people eager to find jobs. But as the day went on, many of those same jobseekers ended up in the homeless shelter and wondered how to care for their children without adequate resources.

While such occurrences take place every day across the country, this sequence of events was experienced by students involved in James Madison University’s Life in the State of Poverty simulation, a program developed by the Missouri Community Action Network and hosted each semester by JMU’s Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services (IIHHS) with the help of community partners. Working in small groups that represent a family unit, students are forced to walk a mile in the shoes of those experiencing economic challenges.

Approaching its 20th year, faculty in the College of Health and Behavioral Studies began providing the Life in the State of Poverty simulation to expose students to the challenges faced by low-income families. At the beginning of the day, students from various academic disciplines—including nursing, social work and health sciences—gather, surrounded by tables representing various community service agencies, such as a bank, a police department, a homeless shelter and a public school system. Over a series of four 15-minute intervals, students work in their ‘family groups’ and must navigate the hurdles associated with their varying degrees of poverty. Each interval represents a week in a family’s life where they must work, pay their bills, feed their family and care for their children.Day in the Life of the Impoverished

Dr. Emily Akerson, the program coordinator, sees the simulation creating greater empathy and understanding in students as they prepare to serve different communities. “Providing experiences that allow students to develop a better understanding of the stresses faced by the individuals, families and communities we serve has been a priority for departments and programs in the College of Health and Behavioral Studies,” she explained.

“Social workers will always work with people in economic struggle,” said professor of social work, Dr. B. J. Bryson. “[Life in the State of Poverty] gives students an introduction to just how hard it is to survive day to day, week to week – especially when you see no end in sight. This is one of many experiences students will have that will hopefully sensitize students to their struggles.”The involved students gain important insight from the struggles they witness through their participation. The Department of Social Work requires students in SOWK 288. Social Welfare to attend the event. This simulation is designed to help future social workers understand the complex issues experienced by families in poverty and thereby respond accordingly.

And it seems Bryson’s hopes for the simulation were realized, at least for social work major Kaylin Miller (’19). Assigned the role of a one-year old boy living in a homeless shelter with her family, Miller was affected by the economic stress confronting the family’s mother. “I feel that people don’t take into consideration how hard it is to dig yourself out of the hole you’re in. This opened my eyes to an entirely new perspective on people living in poverty,” she said.

When the day came to a close, coordinators engaged students about their experiences. Students discussed the issue of “transportation passes,” an item individuals needed to move about the community representing bus travel, gas, walking, or just the energy to move from one location to the next. Many families no longer had these passes by the end of the day; however, they received assistance from other families who understood the obstacles they faced while trying to meet routine obligations such as going to work. Interestingly, generosity increased once a greater understanding was established.

Despite such a stressful day, the simulation affirmed the missions of students aspiring to professions serving others. “This event reassured me that I have chosen the correct major. I feel so passionate about helping those in need, especially children,” Miller said. “I think it made me take a step back and recognize the fact that we are all quick to judge those in need and that we need to all be a helping hand because we never know if that’s going to be us at some point in time.”

Published: Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2018

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