With three convictions at age 44, including one for robbery, he’d just lost the only job he could find, as a dishwasher, because he was late after checking in with his parole officer.
Not making the appointment might have meant going back to jail, but now he was without a job. With a track record of infidelity, he knew his wife was not going to be happy when he broke the news to her.
The scene was one of many played out at the Lebanon Valley Family YMCA on Saturday during a poverty simulation sponsored by the Y and Support Connections of Lebanon County.
“Kevin” was actually 15-year-old Christopher Martinez, a ninth grader at Lebanon High School, with a far brighter future then the man he portrayed. He was the youngest of about 40 participants who learned some valuable lessons by taking part in the three-hour workshop called The Cost of Poverty Experience or COPE.
“I learned that everybody takes things for granted,” said Martinez, who took part with his parents Luis and Carmen Martinez. “We don’t really know what people go through.”
That’s the lesson of COPE, said facilitator Lee Smedley, director of Support Connections of Lebanon County, an organization of volunteers who work with low-income families to help them rise to middle class status.
“Until we realize how different it is for low income families, we really can’t do much to help them,” he said.
COPE was created by Think Tank Inc., an Ohio-based organization that develops programs used by other groups to helping individuals in their communities break the cycle of poverty.
Smedley has facilitated several COPE workshops and was pleased with Saturday’s turnout where participants were matched together at random and given roles based on real life poverty scenarios.
The roles ranged from large families to single-parent households. Several contained individuals struggling with substance abuse problems, while others had members dealing with mental or physical health issues – all of them living well below the poverty level.
Also participating were volunteers who assisted by representing various societal institutions including schools, the probation department, county human service agencies, banks, and the courts. There was even a neighborhood grocery store and a pawn shop, were some sold possessions to make ends meet.
The workshop was broken down into four 15-minute sessions followed by a 10-minute review, each representing a hectic week in which the individuals had to accomplish tasks specific to their life circumstances.
With limited money, otherwise simple tasks like finding transportation to make a medical appointment or arranging day care, became stressful dilemmas.
In the terminology of the COPE workshop, it was called living in “the tyranny of the moment.”
The participants shared their thoughts during a discussion period that culminated the poverty simulation.
Jan Wessell, a member of Support Connections who has assisted in several COPE simulations and filled the role of a health clinic representative, said she observed a change in attitude as the participants became frustrated by the hurdles they had to jump over to accomplish daily tasks.
“It was interesting watching the room as time went on," she said. "The momentum really changed. Everyone was really energized the first week. But that just went down and by the end everybody was just going through their paces.”
Others remarked that the system made it easier to look for benefits than it did for work. And more than one person admitted considering doing something illegal to improve their condition.
“That is very easy for those of us sitting in comfortable places to dismiss,” Smedley noted. “But for a certain segment of our society, that is very tempting.”
Laura Nelson, a home-educator from Robesonia who attended the simulation with others from On Fire Ministries in Myerstown, said the experience was eye opening.
“I had the feeling that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t improve my situation,” she said. “I had a feeling of hopelessness.”
The COPE workshop was the kickoff of several events scheduled this week to commemorate National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It was paid for with a United Way Community Needs grant awarded to Support Connections of Lebanon County.
Smedley says there is money to conduct another COPE workshop. He encouraged interested agencies, schools and other organizations who could supply at least 40 to 50 participants to contact him at 616-914-3846.
To learn more about Support Connections of Lebanon County, including how to volunteer, visit sclclebco.org or check out its Facebook page.