PEORIA — Ninety OSF HealthCare employees from hospitals all over Illinois participated in a poverty simulation event at Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria on Monday.

The Cost of Poverty Experience, or COPE, a creation of the Ohio-based company Think Tank Inc., is designed to dispel myths about poverty and give people a better understanding of the difficulties this population deals with daily, said Shelli Dankoff, media relations program manager for OSF HealthCare.

“If you can’t walk in someone else’s shoes, you won’t know what they go through,” she said.

Participants are asked to leave their own identities behind for the two-hour exercise.

“I am asking you to suspend your reality,” Think Tank Inc. national training director Heather Cunningham told the group. “You are no longer who you woke up as this morning. You will become someone living in generational poverty, and through this experience you will get a greater understanding of what it’s like to live in poverty.”

Forty-one million Americans are affected by poverty, 20 percent of them children, Cunningham told the group. In Peoria, 17 percent of the community lives in poverty. While the statistics are alarming, they don’t paint a full picture of what it’s like to navigate the world under-resourced, Cunningham said.

Participants were divided into family groups, ranging from a single individual to multi-generational households. Everyone was given an identity and a scenario. In four 15-minute sessions, each representing a week, participants tried to navigate their new reality. Jamie Brewer, a nurse at OSF HealthCare St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Ottawa, became Ken, an unemployed 44-year-old man suffering from substance use disorder whose wife works for minimum wage.

“‘Anybody want to buy a lamp? It’s a $400 lamp. You can buy it for $50,’” she called out to the crowd rushing about the room. She paused from hawking the lamp to explain the family’s situation: “The pawn shop doesn’t want to buy it, and we need the money to pay our rent.”

Across the room a family of three seemed to have gotten a better deal. Though the father Marcus (portrayed by Deb Schopp, administrative supervisor at OSF HealthCare Saint James-John W. Albrecht Medical Center in Pontiac) didn’t have a job, his wife Margo had a job and the family's income was usually about $1,600 a month. At the end of the first 15-minute session, they were one of only four families in the room able to purchase groceries.

“I bring home $300 a week, and I decided to spend $100 on food this week,” said Margo, who was portrayed by Janet Taylor, senior billing coordinator for OSF HealthCare in Peoria. “I don’t know if it’s the right decision.”

By the end of the month the family had to make a difficult decision. Through Margo’s job, the pawn shop, and charity collected by everyone, including the couple’s 8-year-old daughter Sophia (portrayed by Roxanna Crosser, CEO, Western Region, for OSF HealthCare in Galesburg), the family had enough money to pay the rent, but not enough to pay their utilities and purchase food. They decided to leave the utilities unpaid.

“We got to have food and shelter,” Margo/Taylor said.

They did better than other families, however. Some got evicted, a catastrophic event families represented by overturning their chairs.

At the end of the exercise, when participants talked about what they learned, Taylor was able to relate the experience to clients she has worked with in real-life.

“All the time they tell us they stand in line for hours,” she said. Waiting in line took up most of the the exercise — they waited for bus passes, they waited to cash their checks at the bank or convenience store, they even waited at the church where they hoped to get a little help.

Another revelation was how much money was eaten up by fees — Margo/Taylor had to cash her check at the convenience story because she had a problem with her bank account. She was charged $40 each time.

Taylor noted how the stress affected the family.

“We kept forgetting about Sophia because we were so busy worrying about food and utilities,” she said. “In my life, she would be my first priority.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.