Newton High School was the site of several thefts on Friday morning.

"A drug dealer just came through and stole three things," said LuAnn Zook, who was playing the part of an unemployed father during a poverty simulation held in Ravenscroft Gym.

Staff from the school's district office, Educational Technology Center, food service, latchkey maintenance and transportation departments participated in the simulation, which was led by Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz of Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas.

Lewis-Pankratz said she wrote the simulation based on families and situations she has worked with, in addition to her own experiences as a single mother.

Participants were divided into households of varying sizes and makeups, playing the roles of children, teens and adults. Some rented a place to live, while others were placed in a homeless shelter.

Each family had to use laminated transportation cards to travel to work, the grocery store, the bank or health care facilities. After work, they were given a check that they then had to cash to pay their bills.

But the challenges became evident early on, as some found they had mental illness or an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Some had infants to care for. Some were wanted by the police.

Trying to supplement their income, participants took cards labeled with items such as "television," "video games" or "jewelry" to the pawn shop. Negotiations became strained as they learned they would only be given a fraction of what their items were worth.

Kenna Graber played an 8-year-old boy with attention-deficit disorder who was expelled from school on the first day — and brought home stolen items from a "friend."

Zook, playing Graber's father who had two other children and a grandchild to care for, said she felt frustration building as the lack of a car and other limiting factors meant the family could not reach its goals.

"We want to do the right thing, but your back is up against the wall," Graber said.

Newton school board member Steve Richards found himself being "arrested" as he took on the role of a 16-year-old boy who did not want to go to school. His family, including his single, unemployed mother and a younger sister, struggled to pay its bills.

"By the time they applied for various kinds of assistance, they were going to get evicted," Richards noted.

Taking time away from school or searching for a job to get to and wait on assistance agencies was a major hurdle for the family.

"All this stuff just amplifies the difficulties — dealing with life, with limited resources," Richards said.

One aspect of the simulation that stood out to Richards was how having more money did not always solve problems participants faced.

"In many ways, money is almost the least significant factor," Richards said. "It's many other resources like having a support system of family and friends, being able to find health care, education and knowing how to navigate the so-called hidden rules of society."

Richards said the poverty simulation, the third one he has attended, had the largest group of participants to date. What he takes from the exercise is a sense of understanding, realizing that these are the challenges that children bring to school with them every day.

"I think some people are kind of waking up to the idea that some of the frustrations of working with various children and families are understandable when we can appreciate what they are coping with," Richards said.

After the simulation ended, participants shared their thoughts about what they had learned.

"It kind of confirmed to me how this helps people to understand and get a sense of the feelings that people who are living with limited resources have — the way it can lead to a sense of being overwhelmed and hopelessness," Richards said.

For more information about ESSDACK and its programs, visit