Local library systems brought together community leaders to combat misconceptions and other barriers to addressing poverty

A life of privilege doesn't necessarily mean wealthy. It means not worrying about having enough money to buy groceries and pay utility bills, mortgage or rent. It means being able to afford a decent home and decent child care. It means being able to plan for the future.

On March 8, professionals from across the Finger Lakes region traded in their career hats and lives of privilege to role play for just a few hours the lives of people struggling to get by day to day.

Cathy Landschoot, community advocacy coordinator with Family Counseling Services of the Finger Lakes, was among the 100 or so who participated in the poverty simulation — a training exercise called “Walk in My Shoes” for librarians, government workers and those providing direct services to people in need. Landschoot said she experienced what it’s like to be one of the people she helps in her profession after role-playing a woman struggling financially and emotionally.

“The goal is to create empathy and understanding, so we can provide better services,” said Andrea Snyder, outreach and training coordinator for the Pioneer Library System. The exercise, held at the Wayne -Finger Lakes BOCES conference center in Newark, was a project of the Pioneer system in partnership with Rochester Regional Library Council and the Wayne-Finger Lakes School Library System.

According to the 2017 New York State Association of School Business Officials, rural school districts in the state face a double dilemma in declining enrollment and increasing poverty, with the Finger Lakes among the hardest-hit regions. The city of Geneva has one of the highest child poverty rates at 33.3 percent, according to the report. The state rate is 22.2 percent.

Often poverty leads to increased emotional and financial stress, increased risk of illness, poor school performance by children, poor productivity by working adults and ultimately a cycle of struggling that can seem insurmountable, according to the report.

Participants with “Walk in My Shoes” assumed roles. They were either assigned to be a member of one of about 35 different families, each facing different circumstances, or be a resource person such as social worker, loan officer, employer, grocer, utility collector, police officer or teacher. Each family received a card explaining their situation and what they needed to survive for one month. Then, during the course of four, 15-minute “weeks” each family had to seek out resources to do whatever they could to get by.

David Zablinski, who works for Pioneer Library System, was immediately overwhelmed by families needing his help in his role playing the clerk at a health clinic. Patricia Bynes and John Lombardi, who played siblings babysitting for a family member, were in crisis trying to support their families and hold down jobs while helping a sick relative with young children.

On the flip side, Kate Hammill, who played a cop — and is a school library system program director in real life — was forced to arrest a number of people caught stealing goods or selling drugs to get by.

Drug arrests were among topics raised during a debriefing following the exercise led by training facilitator Nancy Shelton with Coordinated Care Services Inc. of Rochester. Shelton and others talked about the desperate circumstances that can lead people to commit crimes like stealing and selling drugs. Participants talked about how they felt as they struggled to get through their four “weeks.” They described feeling stressed, exhausted, disrespected, agitated, depressed and overwhelmed. She asked for a show of hands on questions such as, “How many of you succeeded in paying your bills?” — in which just two hands went up.

The poverty simulation also raised awareness of how biases, policies and practices work to create barriers in the community as participants played members of all kinds of families that included transgender members, same-sex couples and other nontraditional family units.

Lauren Moore, Pioneer Library System executive director, stated in a release that “as the hub of the community, libraries are an inclusive and safe place for everyone. We welcome all — no matter an individual’s race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disabilities, age or political belief system.”

The Pioneer system was excited to be able to provide the training exercise “to both library staff and our community partners so that we may all continue to improve upon the services and resources we provide to our communities,” Moore stated.

Pioneer Library System provides shared services to 42 public libraries in its four-county service area that covers Ontario, Wyoming, Wayne and Livingston counties.