South Charlotte

Acting poor so that others might get help

Kevin Campbell, 58, is a professional actor who can next be seen playing the part of Ash Upton in the Children's Theatre's upcoming production of "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid."

One of his favorite roles, however, is the one Campbell gets to play when he participates in the poverty simulations organized by Crisis Assistance Ministry. He likens the experience to a theater improvisation exercise, but more profound and life-changing.

"Participants leave the poverty simulation with a totally new understanding of what it is like to be homeless and live in poverty," said Campbell.

Crisis Assistance Ministry, a nonprofit organization that provides aid intended to keep people in Charlotte from becoming homeless, coordinated its first poverty simulation in April 2008 to inform, educate and inspire the community to take action concerning Charlotte's poor.

The poverty simulations, in which participants role-play for two hours to gain a greater understanding of what it is like to live in poverty, were developed by Missouri Community Action Network, a nonprofit that sold the materials to Crisis Assistance Ministry and trained their facilitators.

Each simulation is provided free to the 40 to 80 participants - unless an organization or company requests one, in which case the organization must pay a $200 facilitator fee.

Ten to 15 volunteers are required for each simulation. The volunteers arrive early and are given a quick training session regarding their roles as community resources, such as the bank, school, store, employer and social services.

Chairs and tables are arranged throughout the room, and participants are grouped into units of three or four, representing typical poverty-stricken family units such as a grandparent, two parents and a child.

Once roles have been assigned, each unit is given a scenario and must play it out.

The experience proves profoundly moving, with many insights gained during the role play and subsequent debriefing.

"I remember this young banker," recalls Campbell. "He was playing a dad, and he was so frustrated with his situation that he just broke down in tears."

Laura Marett, 39, the Advocacy Coordinator for Crisis Assistance Ministry who coordinates the 40-50 simulations Crisis Ministry puts on each year, says it is obvious during the debriefing that follows that "the participants have been moved by the experience and inspired to give back to the community."

Marett recalls a simulation for some CMS employees who had voiced frustration with parents who failed to show up for school meetings regarding their children.

"Once (the CMS employees) learned about how difficult it was to get to the school on public transportation" and confronted a host of other obstacles during the simulation, such as getting time off from work and arranging child care for their other children, "they were a lot less judgmental," said Marett.

Campbell, who first experienced a poverty simulation as part of Leadership Charlotte, has participated in more than a dozen. He said he is glad Theatre Charlotte partnered with Crisis Assistance Ministry for its most recent poverty simulation May 15 because he has long wanted "to introduce this wonderful program to the theatre community."

Both Campbell and Marett are hoping to recruit volunteers to serve as a core that can be on call to fill the 10-15 roles.

Struggling actors can also empathize with many of the issues in the simulations, as evidenced by a fellow actor's response to Campbell's plea for volunteers: "Let me get this straight," he said. "You want me to come and pretend to be poor?"

Each simulation gives Campbell new insight into "what people in poverty deal with and the roadblocks they face."

He applauds the efforts of Crisis Assistance Ministry to keep people from being homeless but notes that "there is still so much more we can to do to help that population."

"For all the good we try to do with our social services, the net is still not large enough to keep people from falling through."