Merlene Davis: Summer mission program gives youths a sense for the trials of poverty

Herald-Leader columnistJune 30, 2012 

The young couple left the Social Security office with their two children, angry and frustrated by the number of obstacles hindering their attempts to get birth certificates and Social Security cards for themselves and their children.

They needed the documents to enroll the children in school, to find permanent housing and to secure employment before the end of the day.

Instead, they were continuously tripped up and detoured by bureaucracy. It must have seemed easier to just give up.

That scene played out last Sunday evening during the first stage of a game at the Mission Immersion Program held weekly at Lexington's Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church.

The simulation game is replayed dozens of times over the summer months as youth groups from throughout the country come to Lexington in search of a better understanding of people who are in need.

Although it was a game, the lessons it taught about poverty and justice were real.

The group that participated a week ago consisted of 10 high school students from First Presbyterian Church in Royal Oak, Mich. Through scenarios and characters, they were given a glimpse of the people they might work with during their week's mission program.

One young woman was a single mother of three who had to endure negative comments from people in authority. She noticed that a police officer watched her more closely than others.

The two youths who portrayed a gay couple instinctively created a story in which they were hunting buddies. The story was cover to hide their sexuality as they looked for a home together.

When their roles called for them to have children, they carried metal folding chairs wherever they had to go as a way of representing those children.

The simulation game would help the group "understand the different housing and financial situations that people in our country face. It is an opportunity for them to open their minds and try new things, and for us to get a sense of how the youth respond to things outside their comfort zone," said the Rev. Matt Nickel, associate pastor of First Presbyterian in Royal Oak.

The non-denominational program began 15 years ago and usually starts filling up a year in advance. Griffin Phillips and Garrett Moore, co-directors this year, said youth groups from as far as Wisconsin have come to Lexington for the experience.

"We get different ages and sizes," said Phillips, a seminary student on sabbatical. "Everyone seems to love it."

The groups arrive Saturday evening, staying in a renovated 19th-century house behind the church. On Sunday morning, they get up early to make sandwiches and deliver them to hungry people who wait near Rupp Arena.

On Sunday evening, they participate in the simulation game. The object is to find a place to stay on the first day, which in real time is 30 minutes. The place could be a motel or a shelter. Those with children must register the kids for school or day care, and each household must balance a budget daily.

The group is then given another 30 minutes — a second day — and a change in their circumstances.

A young man in a wheelchair, and his wife and children, discover how difficult and taxing maneuvering from one office to another can be on their first day. On the second day, he learns that he has a blood clot and that his leg must be amputated. He is overheard saying the family would be better off if he died.

Taylor Kucharski, 16, who portrayed the single mother of three, said the game is realistic.

"You don't realize how much it can impact you," she said. "I'm carrying around chairs, but it is exactly like children. You can't just sit them down and walk away, and you can't lean them against each other."

Taylor learned that the hard way when she was arrested for neglect and her children were taken away for a while. That didn't sit well with her.

"It was upsetting," she said. "I felt I didn't do anything wrong. I realized that other people may not understand another person's situation."

Douglas Ryan, 14, portrayed a man who had gotten out of prison, and Emily Heitchu, 17, portrayed his wife. A bureaucrat made fun of her name while he stood by silently.

Emily said she didn't respond because the person was in authority.

"It is not worth it," she said. "It was really difficult in there to get help. I was there to get help."

Douglas said he didn't stick up for his wife because he needed a job.

The youth learned that sometimes the poor have to bite their tongues if they want to get what they need.

"If they speak up, then they give up their right to what they are trying to apply for," Douglas said. "It is an injustice for them. There is supposed to be equality."

After Sunday's game, the youths spend the rest of the week with activities to enhance spiritual development, Moore said. They work with a variety of organizations that have included the East Seventh Street Kids Café, the Thompson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore, the Hope Lodge, and the International Book Project.

On Friday, they returned home, hopefully changed for life.

Nickel's group's next mission trip will be in Detroit, about 20 minutes from their church. But they needed to get away from home first.

"This program will lead us into seeing things in new ways so when we go on the mission trip next year to the city of Detroit, we can have fresh eyes in our own home," he said.

A program that can open the eyes of our youth, give them a peek into the hardships that some of their neighbors face daily, should be better known and duplicated. I hope this column will help with the former. Other churches and volunteers need to deal with the latter.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog:

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