July 14, 2012

At unusual summer camp, students get feel for poverty

In the simulation, Andrews, 16, plays a girl in a family that has fallen on hard times. Andrews decides his character will skip class to look for ways to earn money for her family.

Jason Andrews took a walk in someone else’s shoes this week. The Providence High School student spent a little over an hour participating in a simulation at an unusual summer camp designed to help participants learn what it’s like to live in poverty.

In the simulation, Andrews, 16, plays a girl in a family that has fallen on hard times. Andrews decides his character will skip class to look for ways to earn money for her family. She’s caught, taken into custody and ends up with social services officials, waiting for her mother to pick her up.

“This is not good. I should have gone to school,” Andrews says, as fellow campers hustle about all around him.

The poverty simulation is part of Mecklenburg Ministries’ “In Our Own Backyard” summer camp. The interfaith camp was founded in 2006 and aims to teach high school students about religion and poverty-related issues in Mecklenburg County. Eighteen students make up this year’s diverse group of campers.

“We want them to be servant leaders,” says Maria Hanlin, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries. “And part of being a leader is being an advocate on social issues.”

The four-day camp, which ends Sunday, is based at Trinity Episcopal School on East Ninth Street. Duke Energy is helping fund it.

The students had to apply to be accepted into the program by submitting an essay and a letter of recommendation. Anyone can apply to the camp. It costs $200, but about half the campers usually receive full scholarships.

One of the first activities was the poverty simulation.

Campers were divided into family groups, each of which had different challenges to overcome. One family, for instance, was made up of four children whose father had just been sent to jail.

In the simulation, the families had to try to survive for four weeks. Each week lasted 10 to 15 minutes, and in that time, families had to pay bills, take care of their children and deal with unexpected financial challenges.

Volunteers manned stations such as a school, a pawn shop and a utility company that the campers visited.

Jill Blumenthal, a Mecklenburg Ministries board member, manned the school station.

At one point, Blumenthal handed out notes to her students requesting their parents send in $5 to pay for a field trip to the zoo. Most parents couldn’t fit this unexpected cost into their already strained budgets.

By the end of the four weeks, several families had been evicted. The pawn shop was full of possessions families had sold to help pay bills.

“Being poor is hard work,” Blumenthal says. “I don’t think people realize that if they haven’t been in that situation.”

Hanlin told the campers the simulation was meant to help them understand the anxiety and frustrations that come with living in poverty.

“Take this to heart as you go out and meet with people – our neighbors, we call them – for whom this is their life,” she said.

Later that day, the campers went to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina to help sort donations.

“I really saw something different after I came here with Mecklenburg Ministries, especially after the poverty simulation,” says South Mecklenburg High School student Chandler Sanders, 18. He has volunteered at Second Harvest before, but says the work didn’t have meaning until now.

The campers are also volunteering at other local organizations, including Crisis Assistance Ministry and the Urban Ministry Center.

“What people want to get out of this camp is to be given the opportunity to find themselves and their place within the community,” says Meara Waxman, a 15-year-old camper and student at Providence Day School.

On Friday night, instead of sleeping at the school, campers were to spend the night in churches that are a part of Urban Ministry’s Room in the Inn program that provides temporary shelter for the homeless during the winter.

“That’s just a powerful reality,” says Hanlin of the experience, which last summer’s campers also participated in. “Many of them go back to their schools and their houses of faith and they say, ‘We need to do more, we need to come and serve.’ ”

The camp’s focus on social issues is supplemented by a focus on faith.

This year’s campers includes members of the Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Unitarian Universalist faiths. They will be attending services at several houses of worship during their four days together.

“We don’t just tolerate diversity,” says Hanlin. “We celebrate our God-given diversity, and building relationships across it will make our city and our community a better place.”

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