By Matt Masters

The Wilson County Poverty Simulation took place last Monday at Mt. Juliet Elementary School and offered Wilson County teachers the chance to gain a unique understanding of the challenges and realities of poverty that faces students and families throughout the county.

The community-awareness simulation took place in the school’s gym with chairs set in circles and a packet of information placed at each group. The packets contained a description of a fictional family’s size, lifestyle, home life, jobs, education, financial means and other descriptive information.

Tables were set up with volunteers, and each table represented a different service or interaction that will impact each family’s time, money or other resources – the supermarket, work, utilities and a mortgage payment were some of the steps in the process. Teachers filled the seats and got a firsthand glimpse of the chaos, stress and challenge to make ends meet in a state of poverty.

About 40 educators gathered to take part in the simulation, which was led by University of Tennessee Extension family consumer sciences agent Shelly Barnes. Barnes said the program that started in 2007 has helped dozens of educators and volunteers get a better understanding of the realities of poverty.

“This is not the upper or lower end of poverty, it’s kind of right in the middle, but it does give the participants a glimpse of what it’s like to live in poverty and how hard it is,” Barnes said. “Usually, with groups like this, if they didn’t grow up in poverty or haven’t had many stressors growing up as a child, they don’t even know where to begin. They don’t know what resources that we have in the county or in this community. So we do talk to them about that, but we give them very little guidance because we want them to figure it out on their own.”

Judy Throneberry, a former volunteer, said the experience showed her the lack of inequality in the community and how those can lead to a lack of opportunities.

“I think it really opens your eyes to the disadvantages that the lower-economic part of society faces, especially with transportation – getting to and from school, jobs, health care, groceries,” Throneberry said.

Julie Harrison, an English as a second language coordinator for the school district, said the simulation taught the teachers how to find unique educational solutions through compassion and support.

“We strive really hard in education to remove barriers that students encounter that might prohibit them from getting the education that they need. So that’s why we do training with teachers, so that they know how to recognize those barriers,” Harrison said. “The poverty simulation is great, because it allows teachers to kind of live it and see how it feels because most of us grew up middle class. We’ve never been in poverty, so we don’t always know so this helps us to understand the frustrations that these families encounter on a day-to-day basis – trying to get to work and trying to get your bills paid and trying to get the service that you need.

“It helps them to realize those things that may be going on at home, so that may be a very valid reason why they don’t have their homework the next day. So if teachers have a good understand of that, then they can help the child get what they need at school instead of penalizing them for something they don’t have.”

Harrison also said schools have a process to identify those who may need help to ensure every student has the opportunity to succeed.

“Whenever students register every school year, the parents fill out a student-residency form, and there’s some questions on that form about the living situation. So that form lets us know if the family is doubled up with another family, or if they’re living in a shelter, or if they’re house by themselves, or whatever situation they’re in. So that lets us know who we need to talk to and kind of ask them if this would be helpful to them. What we run into sometimes is that when we register them in August, things may be fine. But in October or November or December, something happens where a family might lose a home. It might be a natural disaster, loss of income, medical, many things can happen. So families need to let us know if those things change, and we train our staff to look for warning signs.”