Marist Students Experience Life in Poverty

On Saturday, Sept. 12, Marist College students had the incredible opportunity to open their minds and experience what it is like to live in poverty in New York State.

With the organization of the Marist College Center for Civic Engagement, The New York State Community Action Association facilitated an impressively accurate simulation program on our campus. The simulation used real profiles and statistics of people living in poverty to create a truly realistic experience for participants. Marist students entered a room in the Student Center, not knowing what to expect as they saw several clusters of empty chairs. What they soon found out was that each group of chairs represented a real family living in poverty, and each participant took on the persona of these people and spent a few hours living in their shoes.

The students were given all the information necessary to fully understand the circumstances of the people they were representing. Students played the roles of all types of people, displaying the largely diverse population that poverty traumatizes; men, women, children, senior citizens, ill persons that need constant medical attention, and more. What each person had in common was a dangerous proximity to the poverty line; if they hadn’t already crossed it. The room was outlined with tables representing different community based programs or services that citizens needed access to or could look to for help. Like any community, there was a school, a bank, a pawnshop, a center for employment, a daycare facility, workplaces and more.

Participants had a theoretical month to survive with strikingly limited resources, time, and money. Each week of the month was simulated in 15 minutes, giving participants hardly any time meet their basic survival needs.

As students shared their thoughts at the end of the simulation, it was evident that not a single participant had completed the program without being deeply impacted. Students struggled greatly to get through the day with what they had. By the time a participant finally received a paycheck, for example, he or she still couldn’t afford to pay for utilities because feeding his or her family was of the utmost priority. The results? Eviction, compromised health, or a visit from Child Protective Services. The group’s collective sentiment was the shock that ensued when it was realized that for millions of people, daily tasks that we don’t think twice about are impossible to accomplish. Service is even more meaningful when one has a profound understanding of just how much need there is in the world. For Marist students participating in the program, this understanding came in the form of first-hand experience. It is certain that the event ignited compassion in all who attended, leaving everyone inspired to make a difference.

Want to be part of the change? Research your local community action programs and discover ways in which you can volunteer. The smallest donation of time or resources can completely change a life.

(Photo Credit: Melissa Gaeke and the Marist College Center for Civic Engagement)