GENEVA — From layoffs and child-care worries to demanding bankers and unplanned pregnancies, about 30 people from Aurora and DuPage County tasted a bit of what it is like to live in poverty during a simulation at the Northern Illinois Food Bank West Suburban headquarters Friday.
The exercise was one of several held periodically by the food bank staff. Posing as the financially struggling people this time were nursing students from Aurora University and volunteers who work with a Downers Grove-based nonprofit called Sharing Connections, which lends furniture and related household goods to people in need. Posing as the community’s bosses, bankers, school officials, store managers, cops, jail guards, welfare office workers and bill collectors were students from Geneva High School and young people from the AmeriCorps VISTA “domestic Peace Corps” program who are working with the food bank for one year each.
Some of the latter admitted they get so little income from this kind of work that they pay for part of their real-life food each week with federal SNAP program cards.
Assigned at random to assume made-up identities, the participants gathered in families and read a detailed description of their family’s situation. At one table, for example, Sharing Connections COO Ryan Varju learned he was to be a 41-year-old middle-class father named Albert Aber whose unemployment benefits had just expired after he was laid off from his job as a computer programmer.
His wife Ann — played by Varju’s real-life mother, Lois Varju of Joliet — was the only person in this fake family with a job, earning $1,440 a month as a $9-an-hour hospital staffer. She was also the only one who still had health insurance. Which was good because Mrs. Aber also had “health issues,” the scenario warned.
Daughter Alice Aber, played by AU student Christina Leonard of Warrenville, was a pregnant high school sophomore due to give birth in two months. Down on the grade-school level, son Al Jr., age 10, was played (against gender) by AU student Leanne Sorg of Sugar Grove while 8-year-old Andy Aber was portrayed by AU student Alana Weitzenfeld of Oak Park.
Instructions detailed what debts, bills and possessions the Aber family had ($350 a month on a car loan and a student loan, $500 a month for then mortgage, $285 for utilities, etc.)
The group was assigned to live their family’s lives for a fictional one-month period, divided into four weeks which each lasted 13 minutes in real time as a football-style clock clicked down the minutes. If you had a job, you had to go to the employment area and sit there doing nothing for eight of those 13 minutes. If you attended school, pretty much the same thing. To pay bills, you had to go to the bank or the utility company, paying with play currency. To go anywhere, you needed to pay a fare unless you owned a car. And moderator Dylan Mooney, an AmeriCorps worker, warned everyone not to forget to obtain food somehow or the simulation coordinators would hang a prominent “I’m Hungry” placard around your neck at week’s end.
Quickly taking command of the Aber clan, as the first 13-mimnuite week began, father Al said he would start by going to the pawn shop to sell off some jewelry and the family’s camera. But soon after he left, one of the coordinators stopped by with the simulation’s version of a Monopoly Chance card: Ann Abers car had a flat tire.
As Week 2 began, everything seemed reasonably under control in the Abers household. But Mrs. Aber had not been paid by her employer. In fact, distracted by the car trouble, she had forgotten to go to work at all in those first 13 minutes. And when she went to her boss as this new week began, she paid the penalty: Fired for poor job attendance.
“Ironically, I retired from a real job in a hospital, and in real life I was never late,” she said, switching for a moment back to her real-life identity as Lois Varju.
In Week 3 Dad Al asked 10-year-old Junior to babysit his even younger brother while Al took the pregnant daughter to see her obstetrician. But when the doctor asked for an $80 payment at the end of that exam, Al said he had only $25 left in his pocket. He turned over the fake cash and left, assuming that would be an acceptable down-payment.
Thats when a cop pulled him over and he found himself in jail for theft of services, alongside a teenage drug-dealing suspect who insisted she was an innocent persecuted by police because of a record of past arrests. And he had no money for bail.
And so it went until at the end of Week 4 the Aber family had “I’m Still Very Hungry” placards on their necks. Al had borrowed money from a loan-sharky Cash Advance booth. They had sold one of their two cars for $140. Other players had stolen some money and ID cards left on their table. And they had just received a notice that they were being evicted from their home for nonpayment of the mortgage.
In a debriefing at the end, “Al” and “Ann” decided they should have applied for Medicaid and SNAP “food stamps” right away, they should have spent nothing on clothes (not an urgent item) and they should have applied for unemployment benefits as soon as she got fired. Perhaps they could have leaned on the unborn baby’s teenaged father to at least pay the obstetrician bill.
Kristen Miklos, a Geneva High student who had been manning a booth marked “Interfaith Assistance,” said many of the people had ignored a lot of potential help by not coming up to her. Perhaps, she said, nobody realized Interfaith Assistance could offer them two weeks’ stay in a homeless shelter, some free food and clothes, and bus passes.
Ryan Varju said that based on his experience working at the real-life furniture-lending operation, that’s realistic. He said many people in a prosperous area like DuPage County have no idea where to turn for help when they suddenly find themselves unemployed and desperate, he said.
“You’d be shocked at how many children and preteens are sleeping on the floor in otherwise nice houses in places like Naperville and Downers Grove because they have no furniture, ” Varju said.
He and his real-life mother said the exercise reminded them of their own often strained early years, when Lois Varju lost her husband to cancer, leaving her with young Ryan and seven other kids to feed. Then one of those kids also developed cancer.
“I would take in sewing and I would make birthday cakes form Kmart once a month. At times we used food stamps,” she recalled. When teachers would complain that those eight kids had no notebooks, “I would scrip and save until we could buy notebooks,” she said.
“Somehow we got by and we never got evicted from our home,” added her real-life son and simulation-life husband.
“These exercises show how hunger almost never stands alone,” said Northern Illinois Food Bank spokesman Erik Jacobsen. “They can see how people face choices. Do I buy food or pay my electric bill? Do I buy food or get my medicine? Do I buy food or get my car fixed?”
The warehouse-like food bank in an industrial park on Geneva’s east side is sort of a food pantry for food pantries. Jacobsen said large shipments of food — most of it donated by stores and manufacturers — are delivered here, organized and repackaged with the help of many volunteers, then sent out to 800 local food pantries in a 13-county area.
The Chicago Food Depository serves the same function in Cook County while this facility of the Northern Illinois Food Bank serves the surrounding counties in northeast and north central Illinois. Anyone interested in participating in one of these simulations or volunteering to help with the food bank should contact Dylan Mooney at 630-443-6910, Ext. 160.
Tags: Aurora, Aurora University, Downers Grove, food banks, food pantries, Geneva High School, Naperville, Northern Illinois Food Bank, poverty, soup kitchens, Sugar Grove
Exclusive conditions has the potential to present themselves that are able to initiate tough times for many people in the course of startling time periods. Acquiring a needed Instant Cash Advances Loans is us