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North Hills students experience an eye-opening lifestyle

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
McKnight Journal
Students from North Hills Senior High School who took part in a poverty simulation in February 2013 included from left, Ed Horn, Mark McIntryre, Brittany Tomasic, Courtney Nagy and Bri Miller. The students assumed the identities of disadvantaged individuals and worked their way through unfamiliar lives. Dona S. Dreeland | McKnight Journal

For part of a day, local students engaged in a little identity theft — but it all was perfectly legal.

Twenty students from North Hills Senior High School participated with about 80 from three other schools in a poverty simulation, sponsored by Just Harvest and the YMCA's Changes program, that took place at the University of Pittsburgh.

By following instructions inside individual packets, the teens became disabled, unemployed, dunned by utility companies, unmarried and raising children, victims of crime, hungry, truant, evicted — and, perhaps helped, if they knew which community agencies could assist them.

Junior Ed Horn and seniors Mark McIntyre, Brittany Tomasic, Courtney Nagy and Bri Miller were among students traveling from the suburbs to Pittburgh's Oakland neighborhood as a result of their involvement in the North Hills' Hands for Service club.

Bonnie Ziff, family and consumer science teacher and sponsor of Hands for Service, accompanied them. There, they joined their counterparts from three Pittsburgh schools — Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy and University Prep 6-12 at Milliones.

In just minutes, each of the North Hills students assumed a lifestyle foreign to them.

“I didn't know what to expect,” said McIntyre, 18, of Ross Township, “except that it was an opportunity to see how it feels to be homeless or pay bills, have a family of our own and a job, and support the family.”

For Nagy, 17, of West View, it was even more real when a sugar packet inside some folder was “drug” enough to have someone arrested by an on-site police officer.

There were people there, too, who robbed participants of the little money they had.

Miller, 17, of West View, expected all of the negatives.

“But there was a lot of help, community help,” she said. “They displayed the positive, too.”

Each imaginary week of the four lasted for 20 minutes, hardly enough time to adjust to the circumstances of their new lives, which might include caring for an aging parent or a pregnant teenage daughter, finding a job, keeping up with bills, using bus passes or having no money to pay the mortgage.

“You don't realize how time can just go away,” said Horn, 17 of West View. “You run out of time with 20 minutes to find a job.”

He was the wage earner for a family that also included an unemployed woman, her daughter and her disabled mother. Their household income was $1,000 a week.

Other families lived on Social Security checks. The money each had to work with varied, yet they all had to take care of necessities and respond to life crises, small or significant. If there wasn't enough money to feed the family and the authorities found out, the children might be taken away.

“I didn't realize they were tracking us,” said Tomasic, 17, of Ross.

But at every encounter, their names were written down.

Ziff, as did all teachers who chaperoned their students, acted as a representative of a service agency.

“I was with the Interfaith Council,” said Ziff, 60, of Export. “I had money, lots of money, and bus passes, but no one came.”

Even if any of the teens had found their way to agency tables, representatives had little information to give them. It was planned that way to make help difficult to come by.

And that was part of the simulation, too.

“In reality, people actually struggle,” Tomasic said. “In 20 minutes, some people couldn't take it.”

The simulation was eye-opening, as sympathy replaced ignorance.

“It was like dominoes. If you're poor, you pay extra on utilities, and you're getting hit with different things, and then you're in worse shape,” Miller said.

“Nothing was happening that was good.”

Horn came to appreciate those who have provided for him — his mother, father and aunt.

“I'm more thankful for them,” Horn said.

With his new understanding of the disadvantaged, McIntyre finds himself acting differently.

“I put them on a higher pedestal now,” he said. “I used to look away. Now, I give a little to them.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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