EDMOND — For part of one night, more than 100 teens gathered at St. Monica's Catholic Church got a taste of what it might be like to be poor. And they didn't like it one bit.
During a “poverty simulation” Wednesday, they learned about challenges faced daily by thousands of people in Oklahoma County. The program is sponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, a state agency that uses the exercise to heighten awareness of the day-to-day poverty they say 11.8 percent of Oklahomans experience.
Rebekah Zahn-Pittser, a program planner for the Commerce Department, laid out the scenario for participants ranging in age from seventh to 12th grades. Participants were gathered into homes — or circles of four chairs making up a family. They were given name tags and a scenario of their family's challenges.
One “family” was headed by an unemployed information technology professional. His unemployment benefits were drying up while his wife worked at a job paying $8.50 an hour.
Some families had children with serious medical conditions. Others were told they had homes needing repairs but no funds available.
The youths were given a list of rules — requiring them to pay with fake money for utilities, child care, mortgage and other expenses.
Desks around the room were staffed with adults who handled the roles of bankers, grocers, school teachers, state welfare workers, pawn brokers and police. The youth went around to the various desks either paying bills, going to school or hoping to get more money.
The exercise was complicated with “luck of draw” cards given where some problems were enhanced or made worse by situations out of their control.
While some of the students enjoyed the drill, Zahn-Pittser made the objective clear.
“This isn't a game,” she told the students. She asked how many had eaten at least one meal the day before or slept somewhere warm. All raised their hands.
“We should all be motivated to help those in need,” she said.
Dean Hoffhines, a teacher at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Edmond, volunteered for the role of teacher during the simulation.
Two young women wearing “I'm hungry,” signs approached Hoffhines and asked if he would be interested in purchasing illegal narcotics.
“We're poor. We need money,” they said.
Hoffhines declined the purchase and directed them to the mock social service agency.
The most popular stations were the quick loan and pawnshops. Students would try to sell wedding rings, cameras, televisions or other goods at the pawn station. The items were represented by photographs.
Damian Rodriguez, portraying a pawn store owner, was frugal with the sellers.
“I got a million of these cameras here, I just can't give you that much for it,” he said.
In real life, Rodriguez is a business owner and poverty is an issue that alarms him.
“I read where 18 percent of people in Oklahoma County are living in poverty,” he said. “It's tragic. It really is.”
Zahn-Pittser has seen it firsthand.
“Last week I had a mother of five call me,” she said. “Her husband had left and she had been evicted. She needed help.”
Otto Nieman, father of one of the youth, also had heard stories.
“I knew a woman with a baby who was married to a drug abuser,” he said.
“She would pray not to get an unexpected bill, like a blown tire, because she just couldn't afford any unforeseen expense.”
At the end of the evening, Zahn-Pittser asked students how many had bettered themselves during the exercise. Fewer than 10 hands went up. She asked how many had ended up with “hungry” signs after not being able to afford groceries. About half answered affirmatively.
Some of the students had comments.
“People should be doing something about this,” one young man said. “There are people living in tents and having no food. It's not right.”
Another student didn't look forward to growing up.
And another participant was even more succinct.
“Being poor is just terrible,” she said.