By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
PALMYRA, Mo. — Kevin Bross landed in the big house less than 15 minutes into a poverty simulation at Palmyra High School on Wednesday.
His 13-year-old character had brought a weapon to school, and the North East Community Action Corporation's staff shuttled him from the mock school on the gym's bleachers to the makeshift folding chair jail on the other side of the room. Another classmate eventually bailed Bross out of jail, but things weren't much better at their home. Bross and his twin brother lived mostly on their own with a baby doll to watch over.
"It's as real as it can get," Bross said.
Palmyra seniors took a break from regular coursework on Wednesday to participate in NECAC's quarterly poverty simulation. Betty Whittaker, NECAC community services block grant program director, hoped the three-hour activity would foster an awareness among students for low-income families in the community.
As each participant accepted a new role, occupation, home, age and sometimes, even a gender, they forced their poor situations to work. They shuffled through unemployment offices, grocery stores, pawnshops, banks and social services to keep their households running. Meanwhile, some seniors acting as children attended school, babysat or in Bross's case, got into a little trouble.
"It makes them aware of people in their community and how hard it is to make ends meet," Whittaker said.
NECAC offers these simulations to various groups throughout the 12 counties it serves. Brent Engel, public relations officer for NECAC, said the organization enjoys passing this message on to high school age kids.
"Parents already know how hard it is to get the kids to school, buy some stuff and still get to work on time," Engel said.
As Whittaker facilitated the exercise, she turned one hour into a whole month. In four 15-minute segments, students latched on to the intensity of their new lives. As the students tried to find child care and pay bills, many overlooked basic necessities.
"Sometimes they just get in such a panic with what they need to do, and they forget to go to work," Whittaker said.
She said by the fourth 15-minute week, most participants gain a new perspective of poverty. After disability checks run out, children are taken from homes and utilities are shut off, Whittaker hopes the participants take this activity and share its impact among the community.
"We do this so they can gain a real life experience," she said. "This is not a game."