FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Franklin County High School students were robbing banks, being evicted and nursing babies recently — all within the confines of the school cafeteria.
The actions were part of a poverty simulation put on by the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky. It was the organization's first event at a school.
Students in the social studies department were offered extra credit to attend the simulation, and teachers were offered two hours of training credit. Participation was voluntary.
"Generally we run these simulations just to educate people on some of the challenges faced by low-income families and just to give them a little taste of what that may be like," AmeriCorps Member Coordinator Rachel Harrod said.
Each student was assigned a family, and that family was given a profile.
The Aber family, for example, is living on an income of $1,440 per month but must pay $610 for housing, $285 for utilities, $110 for groceries, $40 for clothing, $350 in loan repayment and $150 for credit card minimum payments (a total of $1,545).
Other households were made up of a single, elderly woman or an unmarried couple with a baby.
Banks, pawnshops, paycheck loan businesses, realty companies and grocery store stations were scattered through the cafeteria. The students were to visit the stations necessary to pay their bills and make ends meet.
One family was evicted. One of the students approached AmeriCorps Director Kelly Dycus and asked if she could rob a bank to come up with the money, but Dycus tried to let the student explore the situation herself.
"You can do it however you want," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "But I suggest you visit the community action station."
While that student opted to pursue legal options, others did turn to robbery and stealing.
Calls for police echoed through the cafeteria, as people brandishing plastic toy guns held up pawnshops and banks.
Police officers — played by Kentucky State University students who volunteered at the simulation — chased the thieves with handcuffs at the ready.
Irma Johnson, coordinator of the Office of Service and Engaged Learning at the university, said KSU participated in the simulation to gauge interest in a simulation of its own. She said she's interested in conducting a poverty simulation for incoming freshman in the future.
Harrod said the event is especially important considering how many people live in poverty in Franklin County.
More than 20 percent of Franklin County students — 2,188 of 10,532 — are living in poverty, according to the Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2012 County Data Book.
"I think it's important for people to understand how others are struggling in their community," Harrod said. "Hopefully it will inspire them to get involved and help."
Dycus said the simulation also helps those living in poverty understand their position better and learn more about their options.
"Some of the kids here live in poverty," she said. "They don't ever have to go to the food stamp office. They're not the adults in the family that have to deal with these issues. We thought it might be interesting to let them see what that might look like."
The volunteers also hoped the simulation might influence students' future life decisions, like staying in school or maintaining a stable job.
"These are students and they're at a point in their lives where they're making decisions about what to do for their future," Harrod said. "I think it can be helpful for them to understand how difficult it can be if they have a very low income."
While the students did not have much time to debrief and evaluate their experience before the bus arrived, they agreed the experience wasn't easy.
Nikki Johnson, who participated in a simulation as part of Metro United Way of Shelby County, did have time to reflect, and she said the experience was powerful.
"This activity makes you think on your feet in ways you wouldn't believe," she said. "It makes you want to scream, it makes you want to take action. That's the key — take action."
Information from: The State Journal, http://www.state-journal.com