Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Poverty simulation is highlight of SVdP conference

the Inland Register

(From the June 16, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)

Tucson, Ariz. Diocesan Council Vice President Stacy Brown, left, and Edward Sawatzki, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Conference at St. Mary Parish, Spokane Valley, play their parts in the poverty simulation featured in the St. Vincent de Paul Western Region meeting held in Coeur d’Alene May 26-28. (IR photo by Susan Cain)

Members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (Vincentians) from nine states gathered at the Coeur d’Alene Resort for the Society’s Western Region Meeting May 26-28.

Hosted by St. Vincent de Paul North Idaho, the annual meeting welcomed over 140 Vincentians from 23 western councils. David Barringer, national chief executive officer, also attended.

“That so many councils and conferences were represented shows that the Society in the west is very active,” said meeting coordinator Steve Jenkins, of the Phoenix, Ariz. Diocesan Council. “And the attendance of so many Spokane area Vincentians was impressive.”

“The National Society of St. Vincent de Paul is broken into eight regions,” said Brian O’Donnell, national vice president for the Western Region. “Regions offer local meetings so that Vincentians can be exposed to national and regional programs and strategic goals, have the opportunity for Vincentian training, meet regional leaders and fellow Vincentians who have similar goals and challenges, and provide feedback to the national leadership,” O’Donnell said.

In short, regional meetings allow Vincentians to appreciate they are part of a worldwide community of faith and to better understand that community.

The Western Region is the largest in the nation, covering Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

Among the meeting’s features were daily Mass and rosary, an Ozanam Orientation (see “St. Vincent de Paul Society presents ‘Ozanam Orientation’ at St. Mary Parish, Spokane Valley,” IR 4/21/16), a lecture on the Society’s founders presented by the region’s spiritual director, workshops, socializing, and the Western Region’s business meeting.

The highlight of the gathering for many may have been the meeting’s poverty simulation. Used by many Catholic and other social service organizations, the poverty simulation puts participants in the shoes of those they serve as they struggle to navigate the often frustrating, demeaning, and hopeless world of poverty.

“I’d heard so much about the regional’s poverty simulation, I had to experience it,” said Sue Cain, a member of Spokane’s St. Anthony Conference. “It far exceeded my expectations.”

About 130 Vincentians participated in the exercise. Those who’d never experienced a poverty simulation were organized into “families,” while previous participants ran the simulation, role-playing as community service providers or acting as observers who critiqued members’ performances.

Families, from sole- to multi-member, were given detailed descriptions of their circumstances, resources, and the rules of the simulation. As in real life, their resources didn’t meet their needs. As a result, the participants had to quickly identify priorities and make tough decisions.

“It’s hard to imagine a simulation being realistic enough to capture people’s imaginations, but it was, and it did,” said Cain. “The frustration I witnessed was intense and very real. I overheard actual arguments and emotional ranting. Somehow, we were all thrust very convincingly into a world completely beyond our control.”

“It was fun to watch our Vincentians as they played their different roles,” said Loretta Thompson, president of Spokane’s St. Thomas More Conference. “Even though I was just playing a part, I could really feel what a mother living in poverty must experience as she tries to do what is best for her family.”

The simulation was dynamic and fast-paced. Broken into four half-hour sessions each representing a week, participants had to choose between competing demands and make decisions that, in reality, would be nearly impossible. Vincentians with many years’ experience accessing social services and helping desperate families found themselves immobilized by chaos and overwhelmed by confusion.

Challenging situations were made worse by “luck of the draw” cards that randomly imposed unexpected circumstances on participants. “You’ve just found out you’re pregnant,” read one. “Lose a day of work.” Even apparent blessings brought a downside. One family was awarded a $65 electric voucher, but it could only be redeemed by those current on their accounts. The account of the family in question was several hundred dollars behind.

“The poverty simulation teaches Vincentians what living in poverty is really like,” said Spokane District Council president Paul Machtolf. “It both helps us overcome our own prejudices and viscerally understand those living in poverty.”

The simulation’s coordinator, Mary Ann Hunter of the Phoenix Diocesan Council, recognizes the simulation isn’t perfectly realistic. But she considers its value enormous.

“If the simulation changes one person’s attitude regarding those we serve it is well worth it,” Hunter said. “Every person should be treated with dignity.”

If the experience of St. Thomas More Vincentian Thompson was typical, the simulation’s goal was met.

“The Poverty Simulation was a real eye-opener,” she said. “It gave me a much better understanding of what the people we serve go through on a daily basis.”

(For more information about the work of the Vincentians, contact parish St. Vincent de Paul conferences, or email Spokane District Council president Paul Machtolf: Donations can be made directly to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Spokane District Council, P.O. Box 2906, Spokane, WA 99220, or to the individual parish Conferences. Additional information is available on their web site:

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