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Poverty simulation puts students homeless on the streets

March 18, 2003

By Heather Price

Every semester Baylor students learn life-changing lessons after being forced out of their comfort zone and into the world of the poor.

As part of one of the Mission Waco poverty simulations, three students walked the streets of Waco's in search of food. Hungry and hopeless, they found a homeless man willing to help. They were led to a building where he made them wait outside. The homeless man returned with enough cash to feed all three students for the night. This man, who was most likely hungry himself, had donated his own plasma to feed these helpless students.

'The poor tend to be incredible givers,' said Janet Dorrell, director of cross-cultural experiences at Mission Waco.

The poverty simulation program was developed through Mission Waco as a way to expose many stereotypes and teach individuals what it feels like to be trapped.

'We mobilize and train adults to see the world of poverty we live in and expose them to what it is like to be caught in the cycle of poverty,' Dorrell said.

The program is open to all ages, junior high through adult, and consists of a 38-hour weekend of calculated assignments all geared toward submerging individuals in a life of homelessness. Since the program is designed to surprise participants, exact details of the weekend cannot be disclosed.

The poverty simulation allows the participants to get out into the city and fend for themselves.

'I remember being cold and wet the whole time and not being able to go inside,' Hannah McWhorter, a Canyon sophomore, said. 'We went to six different restaurants, and no one would give us food.'

Participants are forced to find their own food, money and clothes. This struggle teaches many lessons about society and the way American culture views the homeless.

'I had to ask for spare change, and the only person who would give me any was a homeless man,' Kate Christensen, a Granbury senior, said.

The poverty simulation program is designed to be rough on the participants as it shows how vulnerable homeless people truly are.

'The hardest thing is being powerless,' David Sheern, a Abilene, Kan., senior, said.

'You have no choice in what you can have. You are at the mercy of the people around you.'

Students said they believed the experience made them lose all pride and dignity as they experienced life as the homeless do.

'It was a feeling [of] being an object of pity,' McWhorter said.

Although the experience has dangers, organizers say overall it is a very safe program, and participants are never allowed to be alone. The carefully controlled environment does not lend itself to any specific threats.

Many groups from all parts of campus are participating in this program.

The Poverty in Waco class took a group of students the first weekend of March and plan on going again in the fall. Other classes such as Baylor Interdisciplinary Core Examined Life III require the program as part of the curriculum. Many professors including Dr. Steve Sadler, a religion lecturer, are now offering it as an extra-credit opportunity.

'This is a weekend that will stand out about all the rest,' Dorrell said. 'You will remember it forever.'

After doing the poverty simulation two years ago, 'I knew it was something I really wanted to learn more about and something I really wanted to pursue,' Christensen said. Soon after, Christensen began helping with many other Mission Waco projects.

'[The poverty simulation] was one of the top five experiences I've had at Baylor. It changed my perspective of Waco and my goals for the future,' Sheern said.