School of Nursing hosts Poverty Simulation
“My dad’s in jail, and I don’t know where my mom is,” Pablo Perez said. “I’ve been trying to get work but there’s been nothing.”
Perez is a 21-year-old Latino male who attends community college and has the recent added responsibility of caring for his 13-year old twin sisters and three-year old brother while his father is incarcerated.
Needless to say, Perez worried about being able to provide for his family and was finding each day difficult to get through.
This scenario is easy to imagine, but in fact, Pablo and his family are real only through a unique, all-day poverty simulation that was jointly hosted by Fairfield’s Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing and the Veteran’s Association (VA).
On Thursday, October 22, the Oak Room in the Barone Campus Center became an urban city for approximately 40 second degree nursing students and 60 VA employees as they took part in a simulation designed to help them develop a more-informed understanding of living in a low-income family.
“Simulation is not just about mannequins,” said Anka Roberto, MSN, MPH, RN and director of simulation at the School of Nursing. “Simulation is about relationships, which is basically the art of nursing. This truly allows you to feel what it feels like to live in a state of poverty.”
The Poverty Simulation took months to plan and was a labor of love for many people. While simulations are common teaching methods at the School of Nursing, this is the first time a full-day simulation was hosted by a university in partnership with an external, community-based organization.*
Sandra Salmon, an RN case manager at the VA, was the visionary behind the poverty simulation. “This is a dream for me; it’s so wonderful,” she said during the opening announcements. “This gives us the opportunity to learn a lot more about poverty – and so many veterans struggle with that, so we can all gain a real understanding about their experience.”
The timing for the simulation was good. Roberto informed the participants that there are 19.6 million veterans in the US, and 6.9%, or close to 1.5 million, are living in poverty.
Participants were assigned to families and given a character to play — ranging from fathers and mothers, children, grandparents, boyfriends and girlfriends, etc. Other people were assigned to play employees at banks, social services, interfaith organizations, healthcare centers, the police department, and more. All would have to interact with each other while in character.
“This simulation is not a game, even though we’re using Monopoly and The Game of Life money,” said Roberto. “Even though this isn’t real, the statistics and the situations are and this is an opportunity to sensitize you to the situation and motivate us to address poverty in America.”
The participants were divided into 26 families and “lived” four 15-minute weeks. After each “week,” participants shared their experiences with each other, many noticing right away how seemingly easy things like getting around the city became very difficult without money. Long lines at the employment agencies were the norm. Robberies were not uncommon.
By the end of week one, Pablo’s family was anxious.
Marc Nespoli, a VA psychiatric nurse who played the role of Pablo, said, “I’m both frustrated and enlightened after this first week. It’s different being on the other end of this scenario. There are road blocks everywhere you turn and everything seems like a fight.”
For example, Pablo skipped classes in the first week to try to find work, but was called to pick up his brother, Pedro, at daycare because he had a fever.
Erin Gumps, a second degree nursing student and a nurse’s assistant at St. Vincent’s hopsital in Bridgeport, played Pedro and though she could not participate much in her role as a three-year-old, she was very aware of the major impact her character had on the Perez family.
“I feel like a burden. I can’t help and I’m just soaking up the family’s resources with no way to give back,” she said.
By the end of week two, most families in the simulation were struggling. A neighboring family to the Perez’s noted that their 14-year-old daughter had begun stealing to help support her family. Her mother said that they would use the money but were struggling with that decision. “We’re disappointed, but we’re also desperate.”
Pablo still hadn’t been able to get work and his younger sisters both tried to help. Patricia, played by Michelle Varian, a second degree student, said that she skipped school to try to get groceries for the family. Unfortunately, a police officer picked her up for being out of school. “I had to spend the day in juvie, but at least I was given some food,” she said.
When week three began, there was a mad rush for the employment office. It was also a holiday; so many young children were home from school, but subsequently taken to the police department for being at home and unattended.
In the Perez family, utilities and grocery money were becoming more and more scarce. They had almost been robbed, but neighbors called the police and the felon was caught. Other families had not been so lucky.
Penelope, the other sister, tried to pawn off some of the family’s possessions for money.
Mindy Girardin, who played Penelope, is a licensed social worker with the VA and said that she sees these types of situations in the field daily. “Things that should be easy becomes such a trial,” she said. “It makes you feel desperate and you want to find a quick and easy way to make it through the day.”
During the break between weeks three and four, after people had shared some of their frustrations and anecdotes on how they coped, Roberto said, “Every day is a struggle. It’s like putting band aids on a problem, but not finding a cure.”
At the end of the month, and the end of the simulation, Perez’s family situation was still serious, but, looking on the bright side, they still had a home. At least three other families had been evicted and were now living in a shelter.
When asked about the status of his family, Pablo/Nespoli said ruefully, “I guess you could say it ended negatively. I haven’t been to school all month. I’ve been looking for a job, but I haven’t even gotten an interview.”
By the end of the simulation, even though most of the participant families had struggled, the overall feeling was hopeful and determined.
Participants said that they had a better understanding of the constant stress of living without resources leading them to say they would be more patient and persistent in their real-life jobs. Many found that they had overlooked visiting organizations that could provide resources, like community centers, simply because they were spending their days trying to put out other fires.
Roberto said to the VA employees and the nursing students, many of who will serve people living in poverty, that teamwork and good communication was essential.
Salmon said, “That’s the keyword for this day too. ‘Teamwork.’ This event couldn’t have been accomplished without the work of a great team of people.”
Roberto, who noted that the simulation would become an annual event, thanked the participants and said, “I hope this inspires all of you to begin or continue to build relationships with the people you will serve and help change the world they live in.”
*This simulation was a result of Fairfield University's relationship with the VA since 2007 in addressing the special needs of the VA population. A thanks to the West Haven VA Administration and Fairfield University's Dean Meredith Kazer for their continued support of simulation pedagogy. May this be the first of many simulations that can help build empathy, compassion, and connect people to one another."
Pictured top to bottom:
1. Marc Nespoli, a VA psychiatric nurse played the role of Pablo Perez in the Poverty Simulation.
2. A second degree nursing student talks about her experience in her simulated family.
3. By the end of the simulation, the "homeless shelter" was filled with families that had been evicted.