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Stark Agency Hosts Poverty Simulation

“I just couldn’t get it all together.”

“All the money was spread so thin.”

“Kids need stability and I had none of it.”

Stark County Community Action Agency partnered last month with Cleveland Clinic Mercy Hospital and Kent State University’s College of Nursing to host a poverty simulation. Simulations provide participants with insights into life for low-income families and individuals. The new partnership will provide nursing students at KSU with valuable insights before they begin their careers.

Taryn Burhanna teaches community health nursing at KSU. Her course is required for students earning their bachelor’s degree in nursing along with their Registered Nurse credential. Burhanna is requiring participation in the simulation as part of her class.

“Take it back to your neck of the woods and affect change,” Burhanna told the students. “What are you going to do as a result of this experience? How does this help you as a provider?”

SCCAA’s Community Action Pathways HUB Director Schanel Harvey organized the event to bring attention to the social determinants of health. The CAPHUB helps direct pregnant women in Stark County to resources they need to stay healthy. Social determinants of health include things like access to healthy food, consistent housing, affordable transportation and more.

“I hope you really take it all in and get something out of it,” Harvey told the participants. “I hope it provokes effective decisions as we work to move more people to self-sufficiency.”

Joining the nursing students were staff members from both SCCAA and the hospital. Each participant was randomly assigned a role in a family and given a scenario. Scenarios ranged from single parents with multiple children to homeless families to seniors living on their own. Some roles were already employed and some needed to find employment during the simulation. Regular bills such as rent and utilities needed to be paid and school age children were to attend school.

Volunteers from KSU and SCCAA and the Junior League of Stark County portrayed various vendors: banker, sheriff, school teacher and more. Six participants from SCCAA’s Youth Employment program were among the volunteers.

“It’s valuable for them to see a bigger picture of some of these issues,” Harvey said, noting that all the students were only 15. “They will see how difficult situations can be and hopefully learn about resources in the community as well as having compassion for others.”

Harvey also noted that Canton ranks second in the nation for child poverty in cities with a population over 65,000.

“I hope that having youth volunteers will put a face to childhood poverty and provide some insights for those who make decisions that may affect them,” she said.

During the simulation, every 15 minutes represented a week. Participants were required to attend their jobs or school and pay all their bills during that time. Additionally, the sheriff “patrolled” the area looking for unattended children and other violations. Other volunteers handed out “luck of the draw” cards represented unexpected events – both good and bad – that happen in life.

Participants expressed frustration as well as confusion. They were stressed to accomplish everything to get all their bills paid and unsure where to go for some things. Burhanna said those feelings mirror real life.

“As I looked around, I saw some of you in jail, and stuck in line at the bank or at QuikCash,” she said after the simulation concluded. “Some of you applied for benefits, but with limited information, you more often chose to go where you knew you would get money – QuikCash or the pawn shop.”

Pat Williams, Intake Specialist at SCCAA, said she was depressed and anxious and “running all over.” Then she got robbed (a secret part of the entire simulation was a circulating – and highly successful - thief).

“I was really depressed and ready to give up,” Williams said. “I was almost ready to let my kids go because I couldn’t take care of them.”

Misty Secrest, who is about to graduate from KSU with her BSN/RN, played a role very close to real life. Secrest grew up in poverty in nearby Massillon and portrayed a 15-year-old girl in the simulation. She ended up in juvenile detention.

“You watch your parents go through this and one thing can lead to another,” she said. “Without the resources or knowledge, you can’t get out of the cycle.”

For children and teens in poverty, Secrest described life as “exhausting” with childhoods often cut short.

“You’re either trying to stay out of crime or trying to help out or just trying to keep your head above water,” she said.

Mercy staff member Travis Gingrich embraced his role as a nine-year-old boy with asthma in the simulation. When he wasn’t in school, he followed his “father” all over “town” which didn’t help his health.

“Kids need stability,” Gingrich said. “And I had none of it.”

Some of the families fared reasonably well – for that month. One homeless couple found a place to live. Another family, whose breadwinner had been laid off from a high paying job, was able to pay all their bills but felt the stress of “running everywhere” and having no savings.

P.J. Chavez, Director of Mission and Ministry for Mercy Health, said the hospital was excited about the partnership.

“Poverty is everywhere,” Chavez said. “For every patient that comes through that door, it’s our job to serve them. It helps to have an understanding of where they’re coming from.”

Stark County NAACP Director Hector McDaniel thanked all the participants for taking the time to walk in someone else’s shoes, calling them potential game changers.

“I’m looking. I’m believing. I’m full of hope that we can make a difference in the work that we do,” McDaniel said. “When you make the lives of other people better, you make yours better. The gifts and talents that you have do not belong to you, they belong to the world.”

Harvey and Burhanna plan to hold the simulation at least once each term, they said. The Canton hospital is only 40 minutes from KSU’s main campus. Both believe the insights will help the next generation of nurses be more compassionate to both their patients and each other.

“This is just the beginning,” Harvey said. “The simulation is an incredible way to create much needed support for low income families by teaching empathy and compassion.”