It’s back to school week for students and teachers – a time for fresh starts, but also a time that can present unique challenges for some of our fellow Winnipeggers. That’s what Lorelei, a school principal, discovered when she participated in the Living on the Edge Poverty Simulation. And with that new knowledge came a whole new perspective on her work.
Lorelei Bunkowsky, a school principal, was assigned the role of a 30 year old single mom during her Living on the Edge experience. She had two sons, a 15 and 17 year old and the oldest was getting into trouble at school and getting involved in gangs. With a high school education, her character had worked as a secretary before the responsibilities of raising two boys forced her to leave her job.
“I became so overwhelmed with my day-to-day circumstances that it felt impossible to plan ahead. It was like I could not lift my head to see what was in front of me. The attitude of the people at the agencies, institutions or businesses could make or break you. Any small act of kindness was so appreciated.
“As a teacher and principal in my real life, it became especially evident how every parent has good intentions about sending their children to school, knows it is important and wants them there. But when life presents such challenges and you are forced to prioritize, school can fall to the wayside. Getting homework done, finding that extra three dollars for the fieldtrip, attending parent-teacher conferences, these things will take a back seat to food, shelter and income.
“When I headed back to my school, it was like a flood gate opened. I cried all the way. Have I made a parent feel overwhelmed, undervalued and misunderstood? Has the school, our systems, our expectations, our reactions contributed to the stress of a family living in poverty?
“This was only an hour and a half of my life and I couldn’t believe how difficult the choices for my simulated family became. As a person who has never lived in poverty, how could I possibly relate to that single mom who has seven children, is wondering how to feed her family, and I have asked for the third time in a month to treat her whole family for lice.
“In the days that followed the simulation, a woman visited our school office. Accompanied by her two children, the mom had come to pay her fees. I overheard the secretary explaining that she couldn’t take the money today because the person who collects the fees was not there. They’d have to come back another day. I jumped up from my desk. All the emotions and feelings I’d experienced in the simulation came flooding back. I couldn’t send this mother away and make her pay for transportation and lose that time to come back another day. I reassured the mom that we would accept her fees and she wouldn’t have to return. I told my administrative staff to ensure parents never have to come twice for the same purpose.”
Attitudes changed. Policy changed. Lives changed.