COPE: Cost of Poverty Experience
connects churches, communities
By Sonia Duggan
For 2 ½ hours on a cold, blustery February day I experienced poverty. I was a 65-year old woman married to a 67-year-old man living on a very restricted income. We lived in an apartment on income from my husband’s part-time minimum wage job and $300 a month in Social Security. We had rent to pay, loan payments, food expenses, two “unreliable” cars and family who always wanted to borrow money. We were anxious about our lack of adequate funds and had only 15 minutes to formulate and execute a game plan as to how we would survive. In the first week, additional stressors were added. My husband got injured so he was out of work for two weeks. I applied for a job at his place of employment but had to wait a week to hear back. We bought gas, went to the food bank, and tried to get assistance with our electric bill. On top of it all, we were in danger of being evicted.
Thankfully for me, it wasn’t reality. It was a simulation called The Cost of Poverty experience.
My partner in the simulation that day was an Allen ISD employee whom I had never met before. We were part of a group of about 40 that included school district employees, pastors, church outreach coordinators and individuals such as myself affiliated with local nonprofits.
The Cost of Poverty experience, or COPE, offers individuals an opportunity to gain a glimpse into the lives of families in our communities that face poverty every day. It is hosted by Unite Greater Dallas, a nonprofit that started in Dallas nine years ago with a conviction that churches need to know each other.
An Ohio-based company called Think Tank, Inc., created the COPE concept with “low-income individuals who shared their story to give participants an opportunity to move beyond stereotypes to a more holistic understanding of the causes and effects of poverty.” Then, in partnership with the Chalmers Center, authors of ‘When Helping Hurts,’ Think Tank partnered with Unite in September 2016 to bring COPE to the DFW area.
Before our experience at Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen that day, we were briefed about what to expect before filing into a room where the COPE would happen. Chairs were set up in groups according to family size and there was a folder for each group “family” setting. After another briefing, “families” opened their folders to see what their scenario involved. Participants roles varied, and some attendees roles included a 29-year-old woman with a husband who could not read and a child with a disability, a 37-year-old recently widowed and unemployed male with two teenage daughters on the brink of eviction and many more.
The COPE is broken down into four 15-minute segments, each representing a week in the life of an impoverished family. While it may seem strange to sign up and spend an afternoon to experience something so unpleasant, many of us attendees knew that it had the potential to change the lens with which we look at poverty, especially in Collin County.
Our Facilitator and Director of Engagement for the day was Bill Beamon. The Wylie resident and father of three has been facilitating experiences such as ours in Dallas and Fort Worth for 2 ½ years. His role includes meeting and encouraging churches and nonprofits to work together and groups to connect.
“Churches do an awesome job managing immediate needs,” he said. “We need to figure out how to connect churches with other organizations, such as schools, better.”
Beamon is passionate about his job and speaks from the heart. He experienced poverty as a child in Los Angeles after his father, a veteran with PTSD, committed a crime and was incarcerated. Without his dad’s income, Beamon’s mother became the sole provider. She delivered pizzas until she totaled her car, then had to reestablish her relationship with her own mother so she could have transportation to a new job. Despite the adversity, his mom made sure her son stayed off the streets by involving him in church and Boy Scouts. Beamon emphasized how important their family, friends, and church connections were at a time of crisis. “It wasn’t just her alone,” he said. She had relationships that could help us find a way out.”
Thanks to her guidance, Beamon found a way out and went on to college at Grambling State University. Years later, after a corporate career, Beamon decided to pursue more meaningful work in the community, possibly for a nonprofit. His close friend, Pastor Mercury Bynum, was already working for Unite in a leadership role when Beamon’s 12-year banking career was ending. “At that exact time, he informed me of an opportunity to be trained to lead a poverty experience.”
Eager for a change, Beamon contacted Unite’s Executive Director Rebecca Walls and was soon hired as a facilitator. He was sponsored by a donor church for his training at the Think Tank headquarters in Ohio for his new career.
Poverty is a very complex topic, says Beamon, and after experiencing his first COPE, he said it allowed him to unlock a lot of his own personal story. “I really started seeing my family in these families,” he stated.
The nonprofit has been hosting COPE sessions in the Dallas area for three years and their coverage area now totals 19 regions across the DFW Metroplex.
During Beamon’s tenure, he estimates he has helped 2,000 people go through the experience. He said the main reason people attend is for either personal or professional development, but they leverage each event for the added benefit of building relationships and partnerships.
Unite initially started with churches and word soon spread that led COPE to different school districts in Dallas and Fort Worth, including some community colleges. “We have relationships with over 400 churches and are known in the community as a connector of churches, nonprofits, local government, schools, etc.,” he said.
In January, Beamon facilitated a COPE at El Centro College for 140 faculty members. “Recognizing poverty is not easy even for teachers and school personnel,” he said. “Sometimes these experiences are a great way to understand what it’s like for students living in the margins.”
The session I attended in February was the first COPE for Collin County. It included Collin County pastors and leaders from Richardson, Plano, Allen, Frisco, McKinney and Wylie.
“We get an opportunity to have leaders see it – and they potentially understand what we are trying to do,” Beamon said.
The Wylie, Sachse, and Murphy group was organized by Jon Bailey, Missions Pastor for First Baptist Wylie. Other than Bailey, there were representatives from New Hope Church, Wylie United Methodist Church, Wylie ISD, Amazing Grace Food Pantry, and Family Promise of Collin County, where I serve as board president.
Many from our group are familiar with the number of homeless in the county, participate in the Annual Point-In-Time Homeless Census event in January and attend monthly Collin County Homeless Coalition meetings.
Wylie ISD attendee and Family Liaison, Joley Martin, assists families in need in her district role. After COPE, Martin knew it would be a valuable tool for educators.
“I think anyone could benefit from the simulation, from the most experienced teachers and administrators to lawmakers and other influential city members. The actual feelings associated with the experience are what resonated with me,” she said. “I can be empathetic all day long to someone else’s difficulties and work hard to send them to the places they need to go– but I really have no idea what it feels like. I genuinely had feelings of frustration, a little panic, was definitely overwhelmed, and felt actual shame in completely fake circumstances. I felt like I was constantly failing and able to only get the bare minimum with putting forth maximum effort. No matter how hard I tried, it wasn’t working.”
Karen Ellis helps families in need each week in her role as coordinator of Amazing Grace Food Pantry in St. Paul. The pantry partners with North Texas Food Bank and distributes over 60,000 pounds of food each week to families from Wylie, Princeton, Plano, and surrounding communities. “The COPE simulation gave me a refreshed perspective, a deeper level of understanding into the daily stress and unintentional child neglect situations that many families face,” she said. “In my opinion, anyone serving people in poverty should be encouraged to attend at least one of these sessions, if not required to attend.”
As the Benevolence Coordinator at New Hope Church, Betsy Mills is familiar with the impoverished in the Wylie area. “The COPE experience was very eye opening in respect to ‘living a day in the life,’ she said. “I have worked in the community for many years with those struggling financially and have heard from them about the struggles of making ends meet every month. The COPE will definitely help me in my role at New Hope to really figure out the best way to help those in our community the best that we can physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
As a result of the February experience, Bailey said they are in the early planning stages of looking to host COPE at First Baptist Wylie with the school district in November during National Homelessness Awareness week. “We would love to see all areas of the community come together to experience the COPE and see how that can impact the community,” he said. “The more we become aware of the issues, it will enable us to grow in understanding of the issues, figure out solutions, and have a deeper compassion for those experiencing poverty.”
While many acknowledge Real Estate values are on the uptick in Collin County, so is affordable housing. The rising housing costs have increased the average living wage in Collin County, which for a single parent with two children, is now $27.59 per hour or roughly $57,391 per year. A poverty wage for that same scenario is $9.99 per hour.
“You can think about all the problems faced when combatting poverty in our community and get overwhelmed, Bailey said. “But I have to remind myself that it’s one person and family at a time.”
While many school districts and churches have taken advantage of the COPE concept, the toughest client base, said Beamon, is city officials who choose to ignore problems such as poverty and homelessness. “It’s really a daunting thing to take the time to attend COPE the first time,” Beamon said. “You’ve got to keep an open mind.”
For anyone interested in hosting a COPE, Beamon can visit and figure out different approaches to present it effectively. “We offer it through churches, schools, businesses, clubs, and any group,” he said.
Groups can be as small as 25 or as large as 140 though Beamon said a bigger group really adds to participants’ frustration, and it is more lifelike in the role play situation.
“The goal is for every resident of DFW to go through COPE or a similar simulation at least once,” he said. “I just want people to see the possibility of how people get there.”