Poverty Simulation

So, while I loathe to go into this part of my life, I believe this is a story worth sharing.

When I was in college, a charity organization called Mission Waco offered an experience called Poverty Simulation for $85. This money mostly went to providing food/water for our group of about 40 people. Any surplus served the poor at the mission. The experience was three nights long, and such a blur that I only remember bits and pieces of it.

On the first night, I remember that the mission did an incredibly impacting dining experience. As we walked in to the main hall, everyone drew straws. The straws assigned us to an area in the hall, where we were served food in the tradition of that culture.

Most people drew China and India and ate a meal consisting of rice and sauces.

I drew South America (hilariously, considering I’m Salvadorian), and had some rice and beans and black coffee.

Two people drew America. They had steak dinners with potatoes and soda. While they sat on a raised platform in the middle of the room, we sat on the ground, looking up toward them. We watched them in silent anguish as they gleefully ate their meals. A man wrapped in rags with fake boils crawled around the room, looking for food.

A woman walked into the dining room carrying a platter with two large ice cream sundaes. The sundaes were loaded with hot fudge and sprinkles and even had lit sparklers, crackling happily away with each step she took toward the platform. The two Americans looked as if they had seen a ghost. They were too full to eat the dessert, so they politely declined. The woman carrying them smiled, and turned to dump them into the trash.

Black and Tan Sundae, Fentons Ice Cream, Piedmont Ave
I may have imagined the sparklers.

The man in rags was ignored by everyone, despite his loud moaning and requests for something, anything, to eat.

After that, we were shuffled into a room where all of our stuff was taken away from us. We were driven to a Salvation Army, where we were told to pick out clothes, including shoes, from what was available. I could only find a pair of boys dress shoes that fit, and they hurt my feet tremendously. I had no idea we would be walking for over 15 miles over the rest of the weekend.

We were allowed to keep two things that we brought. I chose a sweater and a bottle of shampoo.

I remember that we were given $25 of fake money to exchange for food and shelter and that money had to last us all weekend. I slept on the ground in 45 degree weather with a bright light shining on my face in dangerous, dirty Waco, because I could not afford to buy a bed at the shelter. Some people traded their money for food on the first night, but all the shelter to offer was stale Doritos. The look on their faces as they realized they spent all of their money on old Doritos was an expression unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. The next day, I traded my last money for food and shelter and we had waffles. It’s hard to say if I lucked out.

Madden '11 Inspired Doritos (Stadium Nacho & Tailgater BBQ) 2
Dinner is Served.

I vaguely remember that we volunteered to help children at one point, but I don’t think the children particularly liked it. I rested on a swing for the whole time, so tired I could barely stand. We were given a massive checklist of things we had to accomplish, like some sort of scavenger hunt from Hell, which included providing for our own food, writing a poem, and doing some sort of manual labor. I ended up volunteering to clean someone’s yard for a small peanut butter sandwich. I think the woman really thought I was a hobo. I think I did, too, at the time.

I remember a dumpster filled with maggots. I remember wanting to steal cans from people’s yards.

But mostly I remember losing all sense of my identity, especially my gender. I took a quick bath in a sink on the last day, but I didn’t really care, so I didn’t really try to get clean. I remember wishing I had chosen literally anything else other than shampoo. A pillow, maybe. The sweater was a good idea, at least.

I often blame poverty simulation for killing my emotional relationship with homelessness. But that’s really not fair. If anything, returning to the comforts of my Baylor life, full of food and friendship and deferred student loans was far more to blame.

There’s a bridge over I-35 that has a piece of graffiti drawn in the middle of it. It’s the traditional Waco “W”, and underneath it the words are drawn, “Two Worlds.”

City of Waco
Like this, but graffitied.

Crossing that bridge to one of the poorest parts of town used to make my skin crawl with dread. When I had to cross that bridge after poverty simulation, those words triggered a new response. I breathed a deep and contented sigh of relief. It is so soothing to know that I live firmly on the other side.

Photo Credits: population world map by upyernoz
Madden ’11 Inspired Doritos (Stadium Nacho & Tailgater BBQ) 2 by theimpulsivebuy
Performer of The China Acrobatic Troupe by Toshihiro Gamo
Waco Logo courtesy of

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Interested in many things, but nothing captivates more than technology, entrepreneurship, futurism, and humanity's quest to problem-solve.