Around 50 community leaders participated in a simulation designed to expose them to the harsh realities of poverty during an interactive experience Tuesday in McCastlain Hall on the University of Central Arkansas campus.

Community Development Institute Director Amy Whitehead said CDI has done the experiment around five times but this is the first time they’ve opened it up to the public and did so as a way to address issues that impact all areas of the community.

"So, how can we make our communities a better place to live, to work, to play and part of that means understanding how we can improve our economy for the least of these and for all parts of the community?" she said. "It’s important as city leaders, nonprofit leaders, elected officials or chamber directors that we understand what individuals in poverty are going through so that we can serve those individuals and those families better."

Whitehead said, through the simulation, they are attempting to help those leaders see through the lens of an individual that is living in poverty and the real-world challenges that they may face.

"We’ve found [the simulation] to be [a] very eye-opening experience for most of the people that have been through it in the past," she said.

While the simulation was set to start at 1:40 p.m., participants were forced to wait longer for the doors to open, which, according to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education’s Monieca West, was a part of the design. Even more, the lack of instruction on the front end.

"This is designed to give you just a taste and a feel of what it’s like to come from dire circumstances in some cases," she said.

Once participants entered the room they were told to find an empty seat — some had fake baby dolls waiting for them and other instructional items — where they would soon begin the exercise.

After guests opened their packets, they were given alternative identities to assume that ranged from a 7-year-old boy to an 81-year-old man and varied from single-family households to other families with different challenges.

The simulation covered four, 15-minute weeks and five-minute weekends in between.

Participants were forced to live in poverty while searching for daycare providers, needing easy cash through the pawn shop, dealing with transportation issues, going to work, struggling through children being sent to jail, needing food from the store and having no money, paying bills with back-to-back paychecks and other real-life issues that this demographic faces daily.

"Those are real-world issues that individuals in our community are dealing with every day, so how can we as a community come together to support those individuals to help give them a better quality of life?" Whitehead said.

Through the many times she has done the simulation, she said she’s seen all different types of reactions from guests.

"Some people … it’s not a game but some people do approach it as a game until you get to that debrief part and it starts to get real," Whitehead said. "It is a little stressful and confusing by design because a life in poverty is full of stress."

At the end of the exercise, she said, is when they hold a debrief session for participants to come discuss their experiences.

"The debrief is often times very emotional because some of the people that go through the simulation have actually lived in poverty before," Whitehead said.

Not only is the event a way to engage people outside of a lecture, but she said it’s also a way to raise awareness toward all the different available agencies in the area that are specifically there to assist those in poverty and as leaders, if they don’t know what the agency does, how can they effectively connect those that need it.

Whitehead said the whole experience and what it is intended to do is a key mission of the UCA Department of Outreach and Engagement.

"This is part of our public service, its part of us touching the community and doing what we can to serve the public," she said.