by Felicity Allcorn, first-year Child and Youth Worker student
On Tuesday, November 4, Loyalist faculty and members of the community gave students in the Child and Youth Worker program an opportunity to experience life in a new way.
Our day began in the gymnasium. We met up with our friends, sipped our morning coffee and nibbled on snacks; the anticipation was palpable. We knew we were gathered for the Poverty Challenge, but none us of knew what that would entail. The phrase we’d heard time and again was “life-changing experience.”
We began the day with a brainstorming activity: “Describe what the word poverty means to you.” The chart was soon filled with words such as “dirty,” “lazy” and “uneducated.” They were all judgments about individuals experiencing poverty. This exercise was followed by some surprising statistics: in Canada, 50 percent of the wealth is held by 10 percent of the population, while at the other end of the spectrum only 10 percent of the wealth is shared by 70 percent of the population. We would spend the day exploring life in the bottom percentiles.
Each student was assigned a role for the day. I became a young woman named Karen. Karen’s family had divided when she was quite young. She was quiet and unassuming, kind and intelligent. Karen had a rocky relationship with her stepfather and could no longer live at home. For those of us assigned the role of “Karen,” our first task is to find a place to sleep. First, we need a couch; then we apply to Youthab. After being successfully admitted, Karen finds herself on the street when she breaks the rules of the house. We proceed to negotiate our way back into the house with promises of better school attendance and full adherence to the house rules.
Later in the day we are older, abused and in need of shelter. We seek admittance to Three Oaks Shelter and the process begins again. Eventually we apply to Ontario Works and, finally, to Loyalist College.
The astonishing thing is that while we all knew that we had a safe place to go in real life — we each had a roof over our heads, a dinner waiting to be eaten, and were not at risk of physical harm — somehow, the experience transformed us. We had become our characters for the day; we were tired and frustrated and anxious.
Following the assigned tasks we returned to our groups. Here we were honoured with the presence of our actual “Karen.” In an incredible display of bravery, “Karen” recounted her life story. While it contained hardship and sorrow, and even details for which some might judge her harshly, Karen’s story was truly one of strength and resilience. Her personal account brought many of us to tears and filled us all with admiration.
We ended the day with yet another brainstorming activity. This time the words we used to describe those living in poverty were ones of strength and perseverance. If there was any judgment, it was of the situation and not the individual. We were all left with a desire to reach out into our community and do what we can to improve the lives of all. Coming together in the gymnasium for a final gathering, each group presented their ideas for how to improve the systems negotiated by those living in poverty.
For more information on the Child and Youth Worker program, visit loyalistcollege.com.