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Piecing together the poverty puzzle





It was a simple, yet very emotional, activity. Participants were given a 16-piece puzzle and instructed to label each piece as an important part of their lives.

One by one, several pieces were removed at random, leaving an incomplete picture behind. For Rachel Wentling, the poverty simulation was especially poignant.

"I lost my parents and my husband," she said of her puzzle. "That would be devastating."

"A Poverty Experience" was part of a statewide awareness initiative from the Kansas Head Start Association. More than 20 residents attended the event.

"(I liked) the way he made us look at what people lose, the parts they lose of their lives," said Wentling, principal at Holy Family Elementary School in Hays. "Then the subsequent discussion is when you lose this one piece, it can have a domino effect because you lose so much more."

The program, facilitated by Lucas Moody of the Mid-Kansas Community Action Program, was designed to challenge stereotypes regarding poverty.

"One thing we fight is the perception of TV poverty," he said. "What you don't see on TV are some of the stories I'll share with you that are small-town."

He shared the story of a Wichita couple who went from making more than $100,000 per year and building their dream home to losing their jobs and, unable to find work, ended up homeless in a smaller town.

He shared the story of a homeless veteran who wasn't able to hear because he couldn't afford hearing aids and didn't know help was available.

The exercise demonstrated how poverty can affect more than material possessions. Health care needs often are put on the back burner when a family is in poverty, which can result in debilitating ailments. Adult relationships also often are stressed during poverty, and parents risk losing their children in court if they are unable to provide for them, he said.

"The relationships are usually what mean the most in people's lives," Moody said. "Having someone on the threshold of 'If I don't get it together, I lose my kids,' that is completely intimate, completely volatile. They're at the point of completely breaking. And that poverty is tough."

Some in the Hays community, such as Erin Petersilie, an ESL teacher at Hays USD 489's Learning Center, see poverty constantly. Estimates suggest 470 Ellis County residents are food insecure -- and 170 of those are children.

"You don't have education happening if you don't have bellies full," Petersilie said.

"It's probably very surprising to most people to know the poverty that is here in Hays and how much of an issue it really is."

Several Sunflower Bank employees also attended Tuesday's event; the bank is partnering with Head Start to offer a Money Smart program for parents. The program will begin next week.

"Financial literacy is something we find very important to smaller communities, especially," said Ronan Sramek, a mortgage loan officer. "It's for helping people thrive and survive and be good stewards of the finances they have."

The simulation, Sramek said, gave employees a more personal look at the challenges their clients might face.

"I think (Moody) had a very interesting point that what we see on TV as poverty is only a small picture of what real-life poverty looks like."