Workers feel realities of poverty, for one morning

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Pamela McMillan, supervisor of customer service at Gateway Health, thought she understood the problems of the many people living in poverty served through her job.

But Wednesday morning, through a role-playing simulation in a ballroom at the Wyndham Downtown, she learned otherwise.

"I found that I didn't know anything," she said. "I found myself in their place, and it was scary."

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services ran its first "poverty simulator" program Wednesday for more than 80 employees of Gateway Health.

On a normal day, they are IT workers, security guards, nurses or customer service representatives at Gateway Health, a managed care organization for people living in poverty or with chronic diseases. Wednesday, they were 21-year-old community college students trying to support their family. Or 34-year-old mothers with troubled teenagers whose husbands had just left. Or 85-year-old homeless women.

The idea came from Gateway Preventative Health Specialist Marnie Schilken, who heard about a poverty simulator at a community meeting. About four months ago she contacted John Litz of the county Department of Human Services, which had purchased a poverty simulator program years ago, but had never used it.

"No matter what your role is at Gateway, we do serve members that come from vulnerable populations," said Ms. Schilken. "We think it's vitally important to have people go through an experience to have to think about their work a little bit and think about what they're going through."

Each participant in the simulation was given a role, be it an 8-year-old with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a 43-year-old father. In four 15-minute time slots, participants acted out four weeks of a month -- deciding whether to pawn a ring for grocery money, how to handle child care when school was closed for a week, and what to do when the electronic benefit machine at the grocery store isn't working to process food stamps.

Participants also dealt with surly service at places like the bank or the pawn shop, trying to keep from getting frustrated as they endlessly waited in lines only to find they didn't have the proper paperwork, or that the check-cashing store had suddenly closed. "It became real for people as each week went by," said Mr. Litz. "I think people really did experience the frustration, the barriers."

Partners included Rainbow Kitchen, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Human Services Center Corp., the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches and Catholic Charities Diocese of Pittsburgh.

For Ms. McMillan, the role she was playing may not have been real, but the stress was.

"I felt overwhelmed with adversity," she said. "I was completely unable to cope. My daughter kept saying 'Mom, I'm hungry.' Literally, I wanted to quit, but I had to feed my children."

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