The Gus Geil Lounge in the university's Benham-Pence Student Center was converted into a miniature community replicating businesses and resources one would typically find in a low-income neighborhood. The first of two CAPS events allowed attendees to take on roles such as single parents, grandparents and even toddlers. With names like "Iris Isaacson" and "Jack Jolly," participants were supplied with biographies of their characters and assumed the roles for a period of four "15-minute weeks."
The simulation was co-sponsored by Wittenberg's First-Year Experience and Community Service Office in conjunction with Think Tank Inc., a Clark County-based non-profit organization that supports social service organizations, and Circle's Campaign, a national anti-poverty campaign. Assistant Provost to the First-Year Experience and Associate Professor of Philosophy Miguel Martinez-Saenz was one of 18 volunteers to assist with the simulation.
"We put people in marginal poverty, not deep poverty," Martinez-Saenz said. "A lot of them had jobs, had children in school, were on welfare assistance. If we put them in deep poverty, we wouldn't know where to start."
Tables were set up around the room to simulate community resources such as "U-Trust-Us National Bank," "Food-A-Rama" Super Center, the Department of Job and Family Services and a homeless shelter. Although the tables were arranged mere feet from each other, participants needed to submit hard-to-come-by transportation tickets to simulate bus fares and gas prices before any company or organization would conduct transactions. As a result, at least two participants were late in reporting for their first week of work because they had no means of transportation.
Karin Van Zant, one of the directors of Think Tank Inc., was a facilitator at the event.
"Some are doing okay, some are not," Van Zant said. "See the kid who has been at child care and who has not been picked up?"
The child had been left at the center for the duration of a week.
"In the first week we give a chance and make an announcement for the family to get the kid," Van Zant said. "By the second week, an officer picks up the kid and takes him into protective custody, and the family has to pay a fine to get child out of child care."
As the weeks progressed, many families struggled as they lost their jobs, looked for new employment and encountered long lines at the Department of Job and Family Services. Sometimes participants waited for weeks before receiving any aid at the counter.
One such person was Garnett Purnell, Wittenberg's director of athletics and recreation.
"There were times when I literally wanted to cry because I felt helpless," Purnell said. "How can anyone continue to live under these conditions?"
His character, 50-year-old Winonna Wiscott, was the wife of a disabled husband, a mother to an incarcerated daughter and grandmother to two young children. She supported her family on a monthly income of $1,800, while expenses totaled $1,600. Winonna had been unemployed at the beginning of the simulation and did not find the employment information at community services helpful. The bank denied her loan, stating that she was a poor risk.
"Most families didn't make it," Martinez-Saenz said. "By the end of the month, only three made ends meet, by paying their bills, eating – three out of maybe 10 families."
A substantial portion of the 10 families also wound up at the homeless shelter. According to Martinez-Saenz, these results were not too far removed from reality.
Purnell's family was one that ended up at the homeless shelter by the end of the month. They had been evicted illegally while his character was at work.
"This gives you the message," Purnell said. "I thing I gained most was to know that I can help somebody in that position. Help them to get a better position in life."
Purnell ended his evening by making a personal commitment to join the Circle's Campaign, which is a support group or "circle" for people living in poverty.
"It just allows them to have somebody to talk to, to bounce ideas off of," Purnell said. "I'm encouraging my wife to participate and my daughter, who's a Wittenberg senior."
The second CAPS event is scheduled for 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 27, also in the student center. Registration is required, and participation is limited to the first 50 who sign up. For more information, contact Academic Services Coordinator Melinda Finkle via e-mail.
Written By: Christi Lue '09
Photo By: Robbie Gantt
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