By Elizabeth Fisher
Special to The CS&T

YARDLEY – When they entered Fellowship Hall at Yardley United Methodist Church on Saturday, Florence and Paul Kawoszka were a couple, and members of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Morrisville.

They’d never met Theresa O’Connor, a member of the United Christian Church in Langhorne. Within minutes, however, the three were a newly constituted “family,” and like 50 other participants in the “Poverty Simulation,” they were poor, unemployed and uncertain about their future.

The event, put on by the Bucks County Opportunity Council and sponsored by the Lower Bucks Center for Church and Community, was a program designed to demonstrate the feelings of despair, fear and inadequacy often experience by the truly poor. {{more}}

According to the opportunity council, which helps provide food, job training and other social services to families in need, a family of three needs at least $3,400 a month just for basics such as paying rent, buying food, utilities, child care, transportation and health care. That’s not counting emergencies such as car repairs, or cell phones, loans and social events.

That figure, and the realization that even the most unskilled workers or single parents would have to make $24 an hour just to meet those basics, came as a shock to program participants.

That information was just for starters, though. The group, broken up into mock “families,” experienced four weeks of poverty spanided into 15-minute segments. Some participants scattered to various stations around the room to apply for jobs, get medical care, buy food – with little money -and “travel” to the “welfare office” for food stamps.

Opportunity council workers acted as merchants and government workers who were not always sympathetic to families’ plights.

“We’re showing how real people who have families to care for cope with limited resources,” said David Ford, outreach director for the opportunity council, and the “banker” for Saturday’s exercise.

By the time the first “week” passed, participants actually began to show the strain of dealing with red tape. Dolls that represented children were removed by workers portraying family service agencies because the “parents” had no money for food.

Paul Kawoszka, a.k.a. 17-year-old Dan Duntley, went to jail for robbing a house because, he reasoned, “you do what you have to do to survive.”

By the end of the “month,” signs of real tension were visible on the faces of the participants.

“I wanted to experience this but I find it unbelievable,” said Dianne Brockway, a resident of Bristol and a member of St. Ann Parish. “It becomes so realistic. I actually have a headache.”

Ford, who has presented the poverty simulation program for various other churches and organizations, said the most frequently asked question by participants is, “How can we help?” and an information packet with agencies and telephone numbers is distributed among the group.

Poverty was the theme for another Lenten event at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Yardley on March 23, when about 70 people attended a “Poor Man’s Supper” of soup and bread.

Sue Torelli, a parishioner and a member of the archdiocesan Operation Rice Bowl committee, headed the event.

“We were able to do this with the help of local merchants, our parish Basket Bakery committee and volunteers. Children in our confirmation and first Communion classes are here to help,” Torelli said.

For Kathleen Sheeran and her four children, Ryan, 14; Vincent, 12; Rory, 11; and Aiden, 7, the soup-and-bread supper raised awareness of what hunger means to people who take food for granted.

“We have Burger Kings and other restaurants; we sometimes cook food that our kids say they don’t like, yet there are so many places in the world where people have nothing,” Sheeran said.

Also participating in the dinner were Monica and David Haeussler, who manned a table holding wooden artifacts crafted for sale by people in El Salvador. The Haeusslers have traveled to that country six times over the years to try to help the poor, many of whom still live in tin shacks with dirt floors and no running water.

Several parishioners also contributed jars of homemade soup to benefit the mission.

Before the dinner was served, Dennis Fisher, education and outreach program officer of Catholic Relief Services, gave a presentation on the work of that organization in Haiti, Indonesia, Honduras, Senegal and Kenya.

He said that Catholic Relief Services works to emulate Jesus, who fostered sharing when He instituted the Eucharist and shared it with His apostles. CRS works in the neediest countries to feed people living in dire poverty, open schools and provide families with the dignity of work through various loan programs.

Following the simple meal, Msgr. Joseph Prior, pastor of St. John the Evangelist, urged the faithful to remember the source of all they have.

“As we prepare to celebrate Easter, we should remember the goodness and mercy of God, to be aware that everything we have flows from God’s mercy, and to be aware that He calls us to help those in need,” Msgr. Prior said.

Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.