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'Life on the Edge' Event Leverages Cooperative Spirit to Fight Poverty

Kitsap Credit Union's Cathy Brorson hosted a day-long event on Tuesday to step up the fight against poverty in Kitsap County, bringing together key players from all sectors, including education, social service, credit unions, law enforcement, government and more.

Life on the Edge 1With a goal of eradicating poverty through the power of cooperation and education, a sold-out event hosted by Kitsap Credit Union's Cathy Brorson on Tuesday offered participants a first-hand look at the world through the lens of generational poverty.

As Kitsap's outreach coordinator, Brorson is responsible for overseeing the credit union's service to the underserved, hosting community events and facilitating financial education. She is also an active volunteer in the Kitsap area, including extensive work with Coffee Oasis, a teen shelter located blocks from the credit union's headquarters. The event, entitled “Life on the Edge in Kitsap County,” was Brorson's credit union development educator (DE) project, essentially serving as both the culmination of her credit union immersion education and a new launching point for her continued work fighting poverty in her community.

“With 2012 being the Year of the Cooperative,” Brorson said, “my hope was that it would be with that same cooperative spirit of people coming together, helping each other, that we would come together to dialogue, identify solutions and take some action steps at 'Life on the Edge' to help those less fortunate in our communities to rise above and out of poverty.”

The event kicked off with remarks from State Sen. Christine Rolfes, followed by a moving, passionate several minutes with Charlotte Garrido, Kitsap County Commissioner, who told of growing up in foster care and working now to fight to help people like herself. Before a lengthy, intensely personal presentation from Dr. Donna Beegle, a former high school dropout who had overcome deep-seated generational poverty, attendees also heard from Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent and from Elliot Gregg, president and CEO of Kitsap Credit Union.

“I was very pleased that we had representation from every level of government present, as well as a very diverse crowd from King, Pierce, Thurston, Mason and Kitsap counties which really added some depth and richness to the conversation and outcomes, drawing from so many varied perspectives at the table.”

However, the conversation and education of the morning was hardly left to stand alone. After a break for lunch, attendees became active participants in 'Life on the Edge'—and were, in fact, challenged to themselves live life on the edge for a “month” through the Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS). Created and proliferated by the Missouri Association for Community Action, CAPS gives each participant a role to play with the goal of simply surviving a month on the brink of extreme poverty.

Most participants were part of a simulated family, many of which had young children to care for, and all of which had numerous obstacles and very limited resources. As part of the simulation, the room was lined with tables manned by volunteers playing the parts of various businesses and institutions ranging from a payday lender and a bank, a jail, various social service providers, a school, and even a pawn shop, where desperate participants could buy (squirt) guns.

The simulation was divided into 15-minute “weeks,” in which those participants lucky enough to have a job spent seven minutes at work before earning a paycheck, which, if time and long lines allowed, could be cashed to help pay bills, such as mortgages, car loans, utilities and groceries, to name just a few. Every action required the use of a transportation pass, which cost $1, emphasizing the significant challenges—and difficult choices—presented by such limited time and resources. With a minute left in the week and a dollar left to spend, do you go to the food bank, apply for a job, or try to go back to school?

Life on the Edge 2“I played the role of a 19-year-old high school dropout with a baby,” said Nancy Pullen, senior director of training and development for the Northwest Credit Union Association. “It was difficult to get continued education. I wanted to go back to school, but it was difficult to do that because I was spending all my time during the days going from one social service to the next, just trying to pay the bills and manage the day to day. It really shed some light on the kinds of decisions people are forced to make when they're backed into a corner. I had a baby to feed, and that priority trumped every step I tried to take to improve my situation in the longer term.”

Brorson said that she saw the kinds of decisions Pullen faced as an opportunity to create a deep sense of empathy between participants and the people in their community struggling with poverty.

“'Life on the Edge' is the first event of it’s kind where education was coupled with an experiential learning opportunity—truly providing participants the chance to walk in poverty’s shoes—and that opportunity can be enlightening, thought-provoking and life-changing,” Brorson said.

And the simulation didn't just end the day's work, as a debrief, both in large and small groups, capped an intense afternoon.

“People made personal commitments to local agencies, offering support, offering to serve as a mentor, and volunteering to help agencies working with homeless and street youth or to build homes for Habitat For Humanity,” Brorson said. “I told them in the morning that the one thing they couldn’t do today was nothing. And they rose to that challenge. I’m deeply moved by the compassion and capacity of this group to reach out and be that helping hand. That was the overall goal of my project, and they’re running with it.”

So, having educated to the point of empathy, and inspired to the point of action, what are the next steps? How does one move from inspiration to eradication when it comes to a problem as far-reaching as generational poverty?

“I’m already planning a couple of follow up events to 'Life on the Edge,'” Brorson said, “because I want to continue to foster this conversation and commitment in our communities. Poverty doesn’t take a break, and neither can we. Attendees will be invited back to the table to revisit the outcomes and commitments made at 'Life on the Edge,' and we’ll begin documenting what we’ve accomplished, both individually as well as a collective group.”

 

Questions? Comments? Contact Anthem editor Matt Halvorson: mhalvorson@nwcua.org.

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