Stressful. Frustrating. Hopeless. Discouraged.

These are just a few of the words participants in a poverty simulation used to describe what it felt like to live on a limited budget.

Ranging from high school students to senior citizens, 80 people took part in the interactive poverty simulation hosted by the United Way last Thursday, March 14.

The participants learned what it was like to be classified as low-income, and were presented with typical challenges that struggling families experience, such as health issues or vehicle break-downs.

Scott Meacham, 20, from Detroit Lakes, a law enforcement student at Alexandria Technical and Community College, participated in the simulation to earn extra credit.

"It turned into much more," he said. "I am leaving now with a better sense of understanding of what it is like. Before, I had a quick snap judgment about people in situations like that."

Meacham said he will benefit in his career because of the experience. As a law enforcement officer, he will probably encounter impoverished people, and he believes this will cause him to be more patient with them.

During the simulation, Meacham played the role of a grandmother who was a full-time cashier while her husband was on disability. The couple cared for their two grandchildren, ages 7 and 9. Meacham said the family ended up having to sell everything to help pay bills and at one time, turned to selling drugs to try and get ahead.

"It didn't help," he said. "We didn't get ahead and ended up with $12 at the end of the month. But, our bills were paid."

Trying to survive

Playing the role of an 85-year-old single homeless man, Melody Warren of Alexandria said she tried to get in the mindset of playing an elderly person.

She said the man lived in a homeless shelter for a short period of time, but was told he had to leave. In the scenario, the man ended up making friends with a teenage girl and ended up living with her family, but then the family ended up being evicted.

"I had no shelter, my social security check and two bus passes," said Warren. "I was just trying to survive, but I didn't have a network and didn't know who to turn to."

During the simulation, Warren learned the man didn't eat for two weeks. She said he turned to the faith community, but instead of a hand up, he needed a handout.

"As a society, I think we think there is a warehouse or something or somewhere for old people, but there is nowhere for them to go," she said. "The likely scenario is I would have ended up dead."

Warren said she felt invisible and guessed that is how her character would have felt in real life. And that made her really sad, she said.

Not a paperless society

Carol Harvey, 71, from Alexandria, was a volunteer during the poverty simulation, playing the role of a banker.

"In spite of computers and technology, we are not a paperless society," said Harvey, noting that people still need to show proof of identification, whether that is a driver's license, a social security card or some other documentation.

Harvey also said life is difficult and being poor is hard, which she knows about considering she was a "GI bride" while her husband was in Vietnam fighting the war.

"This community does not know what poverty is," she said.

Keeping it real

Kami Kaderlik, 26, who in real life is a mortgage lender, played the role of a mortgage and rent collector. She said volunteering during the poverty simulation was an interesting and frustrating experience.

"It was extremely difficult," she said. "To see everyone struggling, it was hard. I tried to keep it as real as possible but wanted to go around and help."

Kaderlik provided tips for those who may be struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. She said a lot of mortgage companies are more flexible than people think and that they are willing to work with people. Most often, she said, there is a 14-day grace period and as long as the mortgage payment is made in that time frame, even if the payments are split up, it's OK.

She recommends that people call the mortgage company or a professional banker for help.

Not a game

After the poverty simulation was complete, Jen Jabas told participants that the poverty simulator was not a game.

"It's a simulation. It's a powerful experience to give you a better understanding of what it is like to try and get by week to week on a limited budget," said Jabas, executive director of the United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties.

"We hope this opportunity gave you the chance to see through someone else's eyes, someone who is struggling."

Jabas asked the participants to comment on their experience. Here is a small sampling of what they said:

• "The kids who were left home alone really suffered."

• "We could never make plans for the future. We had to live day-by-day. That was extremely frustrating."

• "The hopelessness was taken to a whole new level."

• "People shunned me. They told me to go away."

• "I felt like there was an injustice. Thought we (the poor people) were treated unfairly."

The simulation was not designed to make it hard for the participants, but to make it as real as possible, Jabas said. It was meant to teach people that it isn't always about life choices, but life circumstances.

She hopes that people left the simulation wanting to be more supportive and to help break down stereotypes. Jabas wants people to understand that poverty doesn't have to last forever and that there are success stories.

"Government agencies can't do it all," she said. "We can all step forward and help. Sometimes you just need that push to help get over that hill. There are programs in the community that can help, but it takes all of us."