BridgeBuilders Poverty Simulation;
More Than Just a Game

A group of 40 middle schoolers from Memphis, TN and Grand Rapids, MI divide into small family pods in the multipurpose room in Sunshine’s 500 E. 61st St. building.  They are getting ready to participate in a poverty simulation facilitated by Sunshine’s BridgeBuilders team.  The goal of the activity is to make sure your family pod has money at the end of the month. But the goal of the experience, as Director CW Allen explains, is to give a more well-rounded understanding of the complex choices families in poverty have to make.  

They are given cards with their identity/role within the family, monthly income, and any other special circumstances.  A typical scenario;  The Hall family consists of a mom who works at Jewel Osco and makes $24,000 a year, a daughter in college, and an elementary aged son.  

A month-long calendar is at the front of the room.  Around the room, stations are set up to simulate the various needs that may arise during the month- a grocery store, social service agency, alderman’s office/court, and currency exchange.  There are situation cards given out throughout the game that mimic real-life scenarios. For example, the Hall family is given a card letting them know that Chicago Public Schools has gone on strike. The family must decide if they will A.) pay for daycare for the son, B.) have daughter miss college classes to watch him, or C.) have mom miss work (and pay) to stay home. 

As the month progresses, the family must pay all their bills, get all their groceries, as well as navigate the multiple scenario cards they are given during the month.  

Those with money remaining at the end of the month are deemed successful. The BridgeBuilders team takes time to debrief and unpack the experience with the group.  It’s often a very eye-opening experience as people begin to see that choices are not simple or easy, and often people are working against a system that keeps them in poverty.  Piper Graham, BridgeBuilders Coordinator shares, “For many participants, it helps them see beyond the community and family they were raised in and see the complexities that people in under-resourced communities face.  They may also have people in their group that have dealt with these scenarios and that can be a powerful shift in perspective.” 

Middle School leader Jonah Wilson from Grand Rapids shared, “I know our students were truly challenged and are thinking hard on the truths you communicated throughout the week. It was encouraging for me to hear students vocalize ways in which they want to take what they learned and saw in Chicago back home.”

As the BridgeBuilders team continues to shape and adapt the experience, they consult with local neighbors, community partners, and coworkers to ensure the scenarios are reflective of real-life situations in our Woodlawn community.  For instance, last year during the pandemic, the community faced riots that closed down local businesses, particularly grocery stores.  This real-life situation impacted people’s ability to access food for their families.  When living on a fixed income, the cost of traveling outside the community to get food is prohibitive. 

BridgeBuilders offers this experiential learning opportunity to middle school, high school, college-aged, and adult groups. They are able to travel to your group, but also invite groups to Sunshine to experience more service-learning opportunities catered to your specific group.  If you are interested in learning more about this experience, please contact CW Allen at