Tears welled in Lori Hilton’s eyes as she pleaded with her landlord for an extension on rent. Her top priority: Rounding up enough money so her daughters could enroll in their school’s basketball league.
“Having to beg another person for their charity was extremely humbling, and I got teary-eyed asking for these extensions,” Hilton said. “The sense of relief I felt when he gave me that compassion – I was so happy, because I really felt like I was that person.”
In reality, Hilton has a son, not daughters. She works as a strategist at Starcom – a global media agency. She generally doesn’t have to worry about making rent. But her emotional experience was part of the innovative Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE). The Greater Chicago Food Depository facilitates COPE to educate participants on the challenges of living in poverty. COPE was developed and owned by The Think Tank, Inc.
Enrolling her kids in basketball was just one of the tradeoffs Hilton faced in her COPE role. For one hour of activity, COPE simulates the challenges and compromises that people living in poverty contend with each day. Hilton decided she’d do whatever it takes to get her kids into basketball. She started by pawning household items, but soon discovered she’d still be late on rent.
“I got emotional talking to the landlord,” she recalled. “I found myself very much in the moment, pleading my case and asking for an extension.”
Strengthening empathy among partners
Starcom is a longtime corporate partner to the Food Depository. In addition to in-kind support, they volunteer time as part of the Starcom Serves initiative. As the pro bono lead for Starcom US, Hilton manages the partnership with the Food Depository and about seven other clients, Hilton said.
And she found COPE uniquely powerful.
“I’m a parent who’s in a scenario where I can give my son what he wants… for me that was the most heartbreaking part,” Hilton said. As much as she wanted to enroll her kids in basketball, she said, “I thought about it afterwards and realized that probably wasn’t the smartest choice – there were other priorities I needed to take care of first. It really hit home, for sure.”
Hilton’s colleagues agreed that COPE was an effective simulation.
Katalina Faraon, a senior analyst, visited the Food Depository for the first time during Starcom Serves.
“It made me look at things I take for granted and notice that not everyone has that privilege,” Faraon said.
Emily Walker, a media buyer at Starcom, was surprised by COPE’s emotional intensity.
“I didn’t feel hopeful,” she recalled. “I felt apprehensive that the other shoe was going to drop. The toll on your mental health is enormous.”
Bringing our mission to life
When Food Depository staff first experienced COPE, they found that it was a valuable illustration of the many facets of lived experience that can lead to hunger.
Amy Laboy, senior director of programs, first participated in the training in early 2018 with other members of the Food Depository’s community impact team.
“We all immediately saw that this was a very powerful way to ground ourselves in the complex issues people face every day, and to eliminate some of the assumptions people might have when they’ve never experienced poverty,” Laboy said.
In fall 2018, the Food Depository’s Board of Directors participated in COPE. After the success of that experience, several Food Depository staff members went through training to facilitate COPE themselves.
Valerie Parker, the Food Depository’s chief people officer, says that COPE enables members of the public to “connect the intellectual dots with the emotional dots” about the cost of poverty.
People living in poverty contend with a vast array of challenges – from health issues to transportation challenges and more. While COPE simulates these challenges, it also encourages participants to reflect on their own lives and resources, and the circumstances others in their community might face.
Parker believes that COPE is a unique way to break down biases against people living in poverty. The intensity of the simulation leads participants to reckon with their assumptions and experiences.
In offering COPE, Food Depository staff take care to highlight the real lives that are reflected through the training.
“It’s not a game,” Laboy says. “This is a reflection on someone’s real life experience. To do it in a way that’s respectful and honors their dignity is key. I think everyone who comes into this training comes with that perspective.”
A broader perspective
Although the Starcom Serves participants had an enjoyable volunteer repack session at the Food Depository, COPE left a lasting impression.
“Starcom is a human experience company,” Emily Walker noted. “A big part of our job is understanding our clients’ customers. I feel like this helped us understand more.”
And the experience even connected to her family’s personal history: “Growing up, my dad would tell me how they couldn’t afford soap sometimes when he was a child. I was thinking of him during that experience – that’s when it clicked for me.”
As Food Depository staff have offered COPE to corporate partners, they’ve heard many participants reflect on their own experiences with poverty and food insecurity.
Valerie Parker recalled one participant who began the debriefing by stating: “This is my story. I grew up on SNAP and I was almost homeless.”
These conversations underscore the importance of the Food Depository’s mission, Parker said.
“People require of us every day to deliver to our partner agencies – because every single day they’re making decisions not just of what they’ll eat, but whether they’ll eat at all,” Parker said. “And that’s the true cost of poverty.”