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Belleville high school students put a face to poverty

By Megan Mattice

Serenity Smith, a Saint Pauls Catholic School student, got a dose of reality yesterday when she stepped into the shoes of someone living in poverty.

Not fully understanding how easy it is to live in poverty, Smith now knows that even with the best intentions, sometimes you can’t help how much money you make.

“To hear first hand about what these people went through, and to see then still be successful anyway, really puts goals into perspective. There is always a way,” says Smith.

Smith was one of 60 Algonquin and Lakeshor District School Board students who participated in the first annual Quinte Poverty Challenge.

The Poverty Challenge, held at Belleville’s CORE center yesterday, is a one day summit that allows students to role play in the life of a “poverty profile” created from actual people living in certain situations.

Ann Boniferro, co-ordinator of religion and family life education, says that students need to realize what kind of world they will be walking into.

“The stigma needs to be broken. The idea that people who live in poverty are lazy, or uneducated, needs to be corrected. That’s what this experience is for,” said Boniferro.

The Poverty Challenge originated in Kingston five years ago, and is now branching off to allow a Quinte to have a workshop of its own.

The day begins with students going over their information packages, which include different “poverty profiles”, created from actual people living in these conditions.

The role requires students to travel between Belleville agency volunteers to try and get the funding they will need to survive.

“The whole idea is to shed new light on who the people are who are living in poverty, and to help these young minds realize that no one really wants to be on welfare or live in poverty,” says John Brisbois, another co-ordinator.

Both Brisbois and Boniferro say that high school is the perfect time to inform young minds about how the economy plays a big part in what your financial future will bring.

“By that time [high school], our ideas are already formed, but we are still learning. It’s a crucial point. There are many misconceptions as to why people are poor. If we can get these kids to view their neighbors as people who are struggling, that will change how they respond to poverty in the future,” says Boniferro.

After a full day of trying to survive as their “poverty profile”, the students got to hear from a real-life poverty survivor.

“I went back to school just to be able to pay my hydro and food bills with my OSAP loan,” says Heather Barker, an advocate for systemic justice.

Barker explained to the wide-eyed audience that she would go a month without hot water, just so she could eat and save money, all while still working two jobs.

St. Theresa Catholic School student, Eric Dolan, said that the challenge was a reality check.

“I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did. Now I know that it doesn’t take much to be in poverty today. It’s scary and it also allows me to prepare myself,” says Dolan.